It’s 6:12 on Wednesday morning, and his big brother, Parker, is yawning over breakfast as 6-year-old Payton Thornton emerges from his bedroom — hair a mess, grey Nike shirt and brown shorts partially covering his bandaged body, grin as bright as the sunrise above his house.
“I’m ready for school,” he announces to anyone within earshot. “Let’s get going.”
It is Payton’s first day with the full class of 16 students in Ms. Abbie Keel’s kindergarten class at White Plains Elementary School.
And Payton can’t wait.
His enthusiasm is contagious to everyone but Parker, who, as a 7-year-old second-grader, sees school as more of a means to an end.
“I only go to school so I can play football and baseball,” Parker says. “Payton’s too little to know what’s happening … but he’ll find out.”
Given all that Payton has endured, it’s hard to imagine life’s got any surprises left. Born with a rare genetic skin disorder called Epidermolysis bullosa — “EB” for short — Payton’s skin is as thin and fragile as parchment. The slightest bump or friction can cause his skin to tear — not that such concerns slow him down. Payton’s knees are a little banged up after he plowed into a parked car on his scooter.
“I got back up,” Payton says, as if talking about a stubbed toe. “It wasn’t a big deal.”
There was a time when the same accident could have landed Payton in the emergency room, or worse. But in September, Payton will celebrate his “new birthday” — two years since a bone marrow/stem cell transplant that has allowed his body to slowly begin producing the protein that helps skin layers stick together. The transplant donor was his baby brother, Paxton.
Although scabs, blisters and scars still occur, the healing process is quicker, the angry redness is visibly lessened and Payton is finally growing comfortable in his skin.
“We never really knew if this day would be possible for Payton,” says his mother, Joy, gently sliding on a clean bandage. “But now that it’s here, we’re moving on … for Payton that means a normal life.”
Bumps and bruises are as common as Crayons and glue sticks for kindergarten boys — not exactly the safest environment for a little boy with fragile skin — but Joy isn’t worried one bit.
“Payton can handle any problem that comes along,” she says. “After everything he’s been through, he can take care of himself. The child runs from pain.”
Payton is ready to grow up. On this first day of kindergarten, some little boys don’t want their mothers to go, but with Payton, there is no drama, no tears, no clinging. He doesn’t even notice Joy has stayed with him until she announces she is leaving.
“I didn’t even know you were still here,” he says. “You can go now.”
Payton is well taken care of at White Plains Elementary. In addition to his teacher, he also has Phyllis Heath, a para-professional who stays with him to serve as a safety net, making sure he has access to everything he needs.
“She’s a good girl,” Payton says with his signature dry wit. “I think we’ll get along fine.”
A ‘miracle’ in the classroom
The halls of White Plains Elementary School are a cacophony of laughter, shouts, crying, conversation and the piercing sound of children’s tennis shoes squealing against the waxed tiled floors. The air is electrified with anxious energy and excitement.
Wading through it all is Payton, walking hand-in-hand with Joy, who is pushing baby Paxton in a stroller. While Parker lags behind, Payton sticks warily close to the wall. As a little boy for whom the slightest touch can cause tear-welling pain, such a frantic, rushing crowd is disturbing. And it’s a long walk to Ms. Keel’s class. But as with all things, Payton takes it in stride.
Once inside, Payton takes a seat at the Red Table, settles down with a fat purple Crayon clutched in his tiny, scarred fingers and starts coloring.
Whether it’s at the Computer Center, the Blocks Center or Reading Time, Ms. Heath is always right by Payton’s side, sitting in a kindergartner-sized chair that keeps her at eye level. Before he became her student, Ms. Heath had read about Payton’s condition and watched a documentary about his transplant on the Discovery Channel.
“He’s just so precious, our little ray of sunshine,” she says. “It’s going to do a lot of good for these kids to have a little boy like Payton in class. He’ll make a real difference.”
While the goal is for Payton to fit in with the other 15 kids in his class, there is no denying he’s different, and therefore a walking, talking lesson in kindness for the entire school.
“These kids will learn so much from having Payton around,” says Kassie Hollingsworth, White Plains’ special education teacher. “Kids are naturally accepting. Kids don’t judge. They protect each other. They stand up for each other. And they’ll learn that through Payton.
“We’ve got a miracle right here in this classroom.”
‘Hug and a bubble’
When you’re a kindergartner in the first week of school, everything is a milestone ... even going to the bathroom.
When all the other kids sprint to the door, Payton, with his thickly bandaged legs, is last. But in this world where being fair is the Golden Rule, whoever is at the end of the line on the way down gets to be in front on the way back .
“I’m gonna be the leader?” Payton asks, practically bouncing with pride. “Awwww right! I can do this.”
After Ms. Keel gives the command of “Hug and a Bubble” — in which the kids wrap their arms around themselves so as not to touch anything, and puff out their cheeks to keep from talking — Payton expertly marches straight back to class.
The rest of the morning is dedicated to the various “centers” — computers, more coloring, reading, building with Legos and finally wooden blocks. Payton’s artistic side shines as he stacks squares on top of rectangles on top of triangles balanced on a foundation of circles. It’s a cathedral in blocks.
“If mine was a house, not even a tornado could knock it down,” he says. “It’s tough like me.”
As the morning moves along, Payton becomes more relaxed, more animated. While working on a puzzle of pigs, sheep, tractors and horses, he sings “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” — complete with “EE-I-EE-I-O” — before sharing the song and the puzzle with a chatty brunette girl across the desk.
“He’s got this quick wit,” Ms. Keel says. “He’s really funny. With him, the kids learn the ethics of personal space — about touching or pushing — because for Payton that can be very dangerous. He helps them learn the rules.”
Payton only spends half a day in school. Joy comes to pick him up around 11 o’clock. For a little boy who’s been through so much in a short life, it’s more than enough time.
“When I get home I’m worn out,” Payton says in a happy drawl. “I’m too tired to blink, too tired to breathe … but I can’t wait to go back.”
Contact Brett Buckner at email@example.com.