Story update: John Carpenter completed the New York City Marathon in 4 hours 19 minutes and 10 seconds and raised $8,554 for Miles for Michaela.
The last day of fifth grade at Chase Collegiate School in Waterbury, Conn., was a memorable one, for many reasons.
"We were taking our last steps out of the lower school building, and we said goodbye to everybody," recalled a student named Collette. "And I always think, when I said goodbye to Michaela for the summer it was really goodbye forever."
Michaela Petit, her sister, Hayley, and her mother, Jennifer, were the victims of a horrific home invasion in Cheshire, Conn., in July. The family was held hostage for hours by two career criminals, who eventually set the house on fire. Only the girls' father, Dr. William Petit, survived.
Eleven-year-old Michaela was beloved at Chase Collegiate.
"The students found her just the glue of the class, everyone liked her," said headmaster John Fixx. "Everyone wanted to be around her. So her loss has been very difficult for the class."
Students around the campus echoed that sense of loss.
"It feels as though it's not real, like it's just a big bad dream we are all going to wake up from," said a middle schooler named Tim.
John Carpenter hadn't even started his position as head of the middle school when he heard about the tragedy. "It was such a surreal and traumatic event, just feeling that palpable sense of shock and grief," Carpenter said.
Though had never met Michaela, Carpenter's job was to lead a school of students who missed her.
Chase Collegiate School held a service and planted three young weeping cherry trees to symbolize the promise of new life in honor of three lives lost.
"We wrote letters to her and planted them in with the tree when we filled them, so there are words with her, underneath with her," said Natalie, another student and friend of Michaela's.
The trees were beautiful, but Carpenter wanted to do something more, something that would let his students know there are other ways to speak and honor those you love.
"For a lot of her classmates, they weren't comfortable using her name," he said. "They would pass by the tree every day but I just sensed that they were looking for a sign or signal to acknowledge her absence."
As it turned out, William Petit's own words at his family's memorial service gave Carpenter inspiration. Petit urged mourners to "go forward with the inclination to live with a faith that embodies action. Help a neighbor, fight for a cause, love your family."
"I would go out for runs and hear Dr. Petit's words about moving forward -- and running is literally moving forward, putting one foot in front of the other as fast as you can," Carpenter said. "And so the idea just kind of, was born on one of those evening runs."
On Sunday, Carpenter will be running in the New York City Marathon to raise money in honor of a little girl he never got to meet -- each step dedicated to Michaela Petit.
"I am dedicating the run for the Michaela Scholarship Fund, which was set up by Dr. Petit, so others could come and learn here like she did," Carpenter said.
Find out more about Carpenter's run at www.milesformichaela.org.