Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Princeton Times

November 4, 2011

Brave Straley students share tales of perseverance, pumpkins

PRINCETON — Growing up is hard. It’s even more difficult if you believe destiny made you different than your classmates.

These are facts that Straley School’s Kayla Richmond and Hannah Cooke know all too well, but the resilient fifth-graders are determined to live life on their own terms and find the silver linings in their clouds.

They recently shared their stories as a result of an assignment handed out by Straley teacher Linda Poff.

“The assignment was to write a story about the last pumpkin in the patch. We were supposed to write about why that pumpkin hadn’t been picked and to make it get picked in the end,” Kayla explained.

As the students set about the autumn-oriented chore, Kayla decided to write about a pumpkin that was colored a little different than all its neighbors.

“I’m a big pumpkin, round and plump, but the thing is that I’m not the same color as the rest of the pumpkins,” Kayla said, as she read her story aloud this week at the school.

Rather than the bright orange of her peers, Kayla’s pumpkin was brown and orange, swirled. Her pumpkin watched as all other pumpkins got picked to go home with children, and she sat alone, crying.

Just when the pumpkin fell into lonely despair, she saw a little girl approaching on crutches.

After a brief discussion, she found out the little girl was a kindred spirit.

“I’m different too, she told me, as she pulled up her pants leg to show me that she only had one leg,” Kayla said.

So, the very different, beautiful friends headed home together, where the little girl carved a happy face on her unique pumpkin.

“Now, I knew I was beautiful, just like her,” Kayla said.

While the story may fit into a creative writing assignment, it’s partially a true story for Kayla, who was born with a birth defect that left her with only one full leg.

Although she has a prosthesis, complications from her condition have left her unable to wear the new leg, for now. She counted 17 times that her knee has gotten dislocated, doing everything from getting up off of a couch to kicking a soccer ball.

Kayla has endured surgery in an attempt to fix the dislocation problem, but she still doesn’t know when or if her leg will be strong enough to support the prosthesis.

She makes her way through Straley School and her life on crutches, and she feels a lot like the pumpkin in her story.

“Sometimes, everybody laughs at me, sort of like the pumpkin,” she said.

Thanks to a supportive family, good friends and an amazing sense of self, Kayla handles the challenges with an cheerful outlook and optimism.

“I can’t be an athlete or anything, but God gave me the gift to be able to sing and play the guitar,” she said, revealing that one of her favorite things is to sing and play music at Stages Music School on Mercer Street. “I want to be a singer one day, but before I can be a singer, I want to work at Stages Music School.”

•••

When Hannah heard Kayla’s pumpkin tale and realized how closely it mirrored her friend’s life story, she decided to share her own history.

She wrote her story in several journal entries, telling the tale of a pumpkin who had braces and a cleft pallet and was on the verge of her 11th surgery.

“Why can’t I be like other pumpkins? I am sad and also mad right now,” Hannah wrote on behalf of her pumpkin, as the gourd continued to get passed over because of her looks.

Then, on Oct. 31, a family with a little girl named Hannah chose the sad pumpkin and gave her a home.

“I got picked just in time,” Hannah wrote. “I love being loved so very much.”

Like her pumpkin, Hannah was born with a cleft pallet, and it’s taken her whole life and several surgeries to repair her pallet and lip and to make her life a little easier. She’s also expecting an upcoming surgery to handle complications with her adenoids.

While her surgeries have built the interior of her mouth and a lip she was born without, she says people can see that she’s different.

“Some people whisper about me and say mean things,” she said. “But, I just say that it’s their loss, because they don’t know how good of a person I am. I am very blessed, because God gave me the talent to sing and play the piano, which I got from my mom.”

Her extended family also lends Hannah strength. She has a total of six siblings and step-siblings and four parents, and she loves being part of such a big group.

“I am the second oldest of all of them, and I really love them all, when they’re not annoying,” she said.

•••

Facing people who make fun of them is part of life for the girls who were born special. On the bus, at day care and on the school yard, other kids make fun of Kayla because she can’t run or Hannah because she looks or speaks in her own way.

Hannah tries to ignore the words that hurt, because she understands they only come from people who can’t see the beauty beneath her fading scars.

Kayla does much the same, but she’s found a physical way to hold her anger in.

“I’m really used to it, but normally I do this,” she said, pointing to the padded handles on the canes that help her walk. “See these grippers? I hold onto them really tight when somebody hurts my feelings or makes me mad. That’s why there are holes in them.”

While these young ladies know they have lived through hard times their classmates couldn’t understand, they also believe there are blessings amid their trials.

Kayla is becoming an accomplished songwriter, and she’s struck up a friendship with a unique friend, Mya Tooley, who sings the songs they write together.

“When you get a song, it’s in your head, and you can’t get it out until you write it down,” Kayla said. “I really love writing songs, by myself and with Mya. She has the most beautiful voice, and I really wish she’d sing in public. But, I still love writing and singing with her at Stages.”

Instead of proof of her surgeries, Hannah sees the love in her life when she looks in the mirror.

“My cleft pallet is actually a blessing. It’s actually a good thing,” she said. “I’ve been taken very good care of, sometimes because of it. I am very loved and blessed, and I am glad of that.”

•••

As they prepared to put their pumpkin tales away and focus on the things they are thankful for this holiday season, Kayla and Hannah pledged to keep doing the things they love and accepting the challenges life has given them, always believing that their families would have picked them from the pumpkin patch.

“I would tell somebody who’s being picked on not to worry too much. One day, they’ll have something big going on in their life, and they’ll forget everybody laughing at them,” Kayla said.

— Contact Tammie Toler at ttoler@ptonline.net.

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