The last of the nine buses was late, but the principal's welcoming words couldn't wait any longer.
Richard Green greeted as many arriving students as he could Wednesday, then he had to return to his office and pick up the receiver on the public address system. Before he turned it on, he laughed and said, "Let's hope the intercom works."
At 9:17 a.m., Muscogee County's newest educational building, Aaron Cohn Middle School, officially opened with a message that said, in part:
"I want you all to know that we have a present here," Green told the students. "You are our present. All the adults here, we are here for you, and today is like opening a present for us.
"You also have a present, what we have to offer you, and today you get to open that up, and every day you get to open that up.
"And we all have something mutually in common here: this school. This beautiful school is our present we all get to share."
After he put down the receiver, Green sighed and said with a smile, "It would have been better if it had been 15 minutes ago."
That was the only complaint heard from Green as his 477 students and 60 staff members began their first day of classes at the $19 million school on Garrett Road in northeast Columbus.
Seventh-grader Zamira Clark was the first to arrive, around 7:30 a.m. -- 90 minutes before first period.
"I've been to plenty of schools, but this is my first really new school," said Zamira, 12, who attended Blackmon Road Middle last year, "so meeting new students and new teachers will be fun."
Zamira most looked forward to being the first student to use her desk and locker.
"I've dreamed about that," she gushed. "I want to take care of them."
Green also arrived at 7:30 a.m., eager to finally see students in the building, whose capacity is 725.
"This is why we're here," he said. "I'm not here to do schedules. I'm not here to do clerical work. I'm here to be with the students, and I'm very excited about that."
Green, a 22-year educator, grew up in Richland, Ga., and graduated from now-closed Tri-County High in 1987. He taught special education and was head boys basketball and an assistant football coach at Shaw High. He worked at LaGrange High for a year, then returned to Muscogee County and coached at Columbus High while teaching at Midland Middle. He was assistant principal at Midland for three years and principal for six before taking on this new challenge.
Some students and staff still call him Coach Green -- and he doesn't mind. In fact, he figures it still fits his mission as the leader of a school that, although constructed, continues to be a work in progress.
"We're building," he said. "We're building a team, and that's the fun part for me, taking something and building it."
Adding to the fun is having his daughter, Sara, join him at the school as a sixth-grader.
"It's kind of like getting her back," he said, referring to the late nights setting up the school.
Health occupations teacher, Karissa Castillo, in her first year, noted her colleagues have persevered through the glitches, such as printers breaking down and delaying schedules and bus passes.
"I think we've really risen to the occasion," Castillo said. "We've gone a little bit above and beyond the standards as far as getting this ready, but this school itself is unbelievably nice."
School secretary Michele Boyd, who worked at Midland Middle for four years and five years at Downtown Elementary Magnet Academy, called it a smooth opening.
"I don't want to sound corny," she said, "but I don't think I've ever been part of a group where people are so passionate about what they're doing and making the school successful."
As he walked out of his office to attend the eighth-grade assembly, Green paused to emphasize that point. While preparing the school this summer, he read Cohn's memoir, about the son of Jewish immigrants who earned a Bronze Star in World War II, helped liberate a concentration camp and was the nation's oldest and longest-serving juvenile court judge when he died at 96 on July 4, 2012.
"We really want to do this right," Green said, "not only because it's the right thing to do and that's what educators do, but it's got somebody's name attached to it. I mean, it's not called Garrett Road Middle School."IF YOU GO
What: Aaron Cohn Middle School dedication ceremony
When: Saturday, 3 p.m.
Where: 7532 Garrett Road