OCOEE It happened every morning last week at Ocoee Middle School, but the crowd was largest on Tuesday.
As the campus community was reeling from the news that beloved classmate and student Lavardo “Eljay” Fisher, 13, had been accidentally shot on Sunday, Feb. 7, and later passed away the evening of Feb. 8, there seemed to be a gravitational pull each morning toward the flagpole in the middle of campus.
It happened each day that week, organic and unplanned — but the crowd was largest on that Tuesday morning, after news of Lavardo’s passing had circulated.
Dr. Mark Shanoff, the school’s principal, estimated the entire campus — 1,400 students, along with faculty and staff — was present that morning.
Some prayed, some meditated, others were silent and many embraced one another.
The gathering was just one measure of the impact that the exuberant young man with the wit beyond his years and the contagious smile had had on the Ocoee community.
“It’s an amazing experience, for a principal for such a large middle school, to see the closeness of a community in just those few moments before school where everybody was just going to come together,” Shanoff said. “It’s a testament to the type of kid that Lavardo is.”
WELL-ROUNDED YOUNG MAN
Dealing with the loss of any child is difficult for a community, but with Lavardo, it is perhaps doubly so because of just how well-liked he was.
The outgoing youth was not tied to one group of friends — indeed, Lavardo’s involvement in Ocoee Bulldogs youth football, student council, band and honors classes made him a friend to many.
Polite and well-spoken, he is described as having been charismatic — and funny.
“He was a jokester who kept things light and kept things above board,” Shanoff said. “He was so well-raised that he just always knew where the boundaries were.”
That sentiment — that Lavardo could be funny while also housing a keen awareness of when to turn it off — was something his teachers echoed.
“He is a character,” said Jacob Pickett, the band director at Ocoee Middle and a teacher of Lavardo’s for three years. “I couldn’t be mad at him for more than 10 seconds … and he knew that.”
It was in Pickett’s classroom that Lavardo fostered a growing appreciation for music and became, as Shanoff put it, “a phenomenal drummer.”
“(Lavardo) really began to think about music as much more than just a hobby,” Pickett said. “He worked on being someone that is a musician that is not just about himself. … He was really starting to develop as a great percussionist.”
An aspiring musician who also ran track for the school, teachers noted that Lavardo brought an unique enthusiasm to the classroom. It seemed to showcase an awareness of the opportunities that might be available to him if he was successful in school — something Shanoff and his faculty attributed to a strong upbringing at home.
“(Lavardo) was full of questions if he didn’t understand something and he was always participating,” said Brittany Skeens, his geometry teacher.
Lavardo would often double as an unofficial “teacher’s assistant,” helping other students who might not have grasped a concept.
His intelligence benefited him on the football field, as well. Ocoee Bulldogs Junior Midgets coach Lo Woods said although Lavardo’s smile could light up a room, he was a fierce linebacker who captained his team’s defense and grasped schematic concepts quickly.
“With Lavardo, we would just give a signal, and he would get them in the huddle and tell them what to do, because he was so smart,” Woods said.
A COMMUNITY MOURNS
Dealing with the loss of a young man with such a bright future has been a challenge not only for students at Ocoee Middle or teammates for the Bulldogs, but also for the adults who were a part of his daily life.
“You have to be able to handle everything, to process everything, while you’re helping students process,” Pickett said, reflecting on the challenges he and his colleagues encountered last week. “Watching the students deal with this situation, and you watch the hurt they’ve gone through, it’s very difficult.”
To help with that grieving process, Orange County Public Schools had grief counselors on campus last week to be available to students. On social media, including Instagram, students began to use the hashtag “#PrayForLavardo.”
“Just among themselves, I can hear them in the commons or even coming into class, telling stories and sharing memories they have of Lavardo,” Skeens said. “Everybody was affected by this. Everybody felt it.”
Wanting to go a step further, Shanoff dedicated the school’s boys and girls basketball games that Wednesday to Lavardo’s memory and offered to pay the admission for any student who would like to attend. There, players for both the Cardinals and the visiting teams from Wolf Lake Middle wore black socks and a moment of silence was observed before each game.
The Ocoee Bulldogs organization has banded together to start a GoFundMe to raise donations to help the family with any expenses. An already-scheduled flag football event Feb. 12 became an opportunity for teammates and the community to come together.
“We are ‘one Bulldog,’” Woods said, explaining that Lavardo and many of his teammates have been playing together since early in grade school. “They do everything together.”
A viewing service has been set for 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 19, and a Life Celebration will be held at 11 a.m. the next day. Both services will take place at New Destiny Christian Center, 505 E. McCormick Road, Apopka.
Attendees are encouraged to wear bow ties in Lavardo’s honor. It is an appropriately unique way to remember a unique young man — one whose respectful and positive demeanor left a lasting impression.
“As the father of a daughter, Lavardo is absolutely the type of kid that you want your daughter to bring home,” Shanoff said.
Contact Steven Ryzewski at [email protected].