MELBOURNE, Fla. — This time, Brad and Victoria Maddox hoped things would be different.
A few weeks ago, the family moved here from North Carolina, where their son Isaac had briefly attended kindergarten. Their memories were still raw: of students, seeing Isaac's burn scars and not understanding; of the name calling and shoving.
Isaac couldn't focus, he was having trouble learning. He even tried to run away during a school fire alarm.
His parents didn't want to take any chances that it could happen again.
On Monday, Isaac's family —along with staffers at Sherwood Elementary School and members of the Melbourne Fire Department — introduced the 5-year-old to classmates in a way they hoped would promote acceptance and understanding. They wanted to stop any bullying before it started.
Firefighters talked with kindergartners about burn victims before watching a video explaining that they were "just like you."
"Today he's going to be an honorary firefighter," Deputy Fire Marshal Angel Condre said of Isaac. "He's one of us. When you see him, treat him the same way you would treat one of us. With respect."
As Isaac walked through the door, accompanied by the firefighters, kindergartners clapped.
Apprehensive, Isaac leaned into a firefighter, then ducked behind the door. Slowly, firefighterscoaxed him out. His father took Isaac by the hand, then picked him up and carried him toward his classmates.
Isaac buried his head into his father's shoulder.
"Do you all remember your first day of school?" Conde said. "Did you all feel this way on the first day?"
"Yes," the students said in unison.
School-aged burn victims often struggle with acceptance among their peers. Scars can sometimes be visible.
If their classmates are "not equipped with the proper tools to handle those differences, sometimes it can become negative," said Amy Clark, family services coordinator at the nonprofit Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors.
At Isaac's age, children might fill in gaps in their understanding with their imagination. And their imaginations can be vivid, such as suggesting that a burn scar is contagious.
"If they're not given (the correct) information, they can create all kinds of stories that can be very hurtful for that child and cause a lot of stress and anxiety," Clark said, noting that can lead to isolation and depression.
It's why the "school re-entry" process is so important, why education and awareness are key, and why the Melbourne Fire Department agreed to help introduce Isaac to his new school.
Teachers also said they were committed to smoothing the transition — and to taking a firm stance on any bullying that might occur.
Already, kindergarten teacher Sasha Hensler corrected a boy who thought Isaac's scars could catch on fire.
"They don't understand," she said.
On Friday, Isaac's family took him to Wickham Park. "Watch me! Watch me!" Isaac yelled from the top of the playground, before rocketing down a slide.
Then it was off to the jungle gym, the lights in his sneakers flashing as he made his way across the playground.
"Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes," he shouted, pumping his arms after making it across.
Aside from his medical condition —the ongoing surgeries as he grows, the precautionary steps to keep him from overheating since he cannot sweat, the always-visible scars —Isaac is like any other kid.
"He's smart, he's funny," said his father, Brad.
He knows his colors, his shapes. He can tell you the names of different engine parts and tools, which he picked up while helping his dad work on his truck.
"When I look at Isaac, I don't see the scars," Brad said. "I see him as my son."
If only everyone could see that Isaac first, instead of the scars, his family hoped. But children have natural curiosities. He was bound to get unwanted attention.
Earlier, another boy on the playground had approached him. What's wrong with you, the boy asked. Did you get run over?
Isaac doesn't remember the fire that left second- and third-degree burns across 80 percent of his body.
It was March 29, 2009. He was two years old, his sister one. They were asleep when the accident happened.
Fueled by gas being used to remove carpet, flames spread across Isaac's great-grandmother's house in North Carolina, where the family was staying.
Brad pulled Isaac out of the house first. He wasn't breathing; his mother did cardio-pulmonary resuscitation.
Running back inside, Brad pulled his daughter, Lindsay, out next. Then Brad rescued his mother-in-law.
He was about to go back in for his wife's grandmother and sister when the fire department arrived, stopping him.
The two women died.
The Maddoxes moved to Melbourne about three weeks ago. It was time for a fresh start, a new school. But how to make the transition?
The family contacted the Melbourne Fire Department and Sherwood Elementary and explained the situation.
Isaac's teacher Kathy Guerrero started preparing — including clipping a recent Florida Today story and photograph about a 10-week-old kitten that was rescued from a Palm Bay house fire.
The kitten, Khloe, survived the fire, but not without injuries: Her fur was singed to her skin and her eyelids badly burned.
Guerrero's students identified with Khloe; children often relate to animals at that age. And Guerrero made sure to point out that Karen Gibson of the Purrs and Whiskers Shelter in Melbourne was looking at Khloe in the photo — and smiling.
"The lady still liked her," said Isaac's classmate James Peedin, 5, of Khloe. "She's smiling. She wasn't afraid of her."
After firefighters talked with students on Monday, and after Isaac passed out plastic firefighter hats to every kindergartner, Guerrero took Isaac by the hand, leading him to class.
"I love you buddy," his father called out after him.
In the classroom, Guerrero showed Isaac his seat. Instead, he ducked under the table.
Sometimes children are scared, overwhelmed or unsure of the environment, said Hensler, a kindergarten teacher.
As Guerrero led an activity where students were up and out of their chairs, Isaac slowly crawled out from under his desk. Then he was kneeling, then standing.
Soon, it was time to read a story, and Guerrero suggested Isaac sit on the carpeted area with his classmates. "Isaac! Isaac!" a classmate called out. "Come sit by me," another said.
Taking his hand, Guerrero lead Isaac to sit next to James Peedin.
"Do you want me to tell you the letters in my name?" James asked Isaac. "J-A-M-E-S. Do you want me to tell you my last name?"
Isaac smiled. And Guerrero, seeing that he was OK, began the lesson.
"Let's read the title together," she said, the class's attention now focused on the oversized book in her hands. " 'The Picnic at Apple Park.' "
Information from: Florida Today, http://www.floridatoday.com
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