COLUMBIA— The lobby of Shepard Boulevard Elementary School buzzed with excitement early Monday morning as students and faculty gathered to welcome Aiden Taylor back to school.
Principal Jacquie Ward led the group outside to greet the second-grader who is battling brain cancer. He hadn't been in school since his diagnosis in late January.
Aiden has undergone two surgeries at MU's Women and Children's Hospital, as well as a third surgery and thirty days of radiation in Memphis, where he is being treated at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. He will remain in Columbia for five weeks before returning to Memphis for chemotherapy. He will attend Shepard full time.
Aiden, whom his parents described as friendly and active, is still regaining his ability to speak and walk.
Ward cautioned the students to be calm and respectful.
"Aiden is very nervous," she told the crowd. "We want him to feel loved."
Wheeled in by his mother, Lisa Taylor, Aiden kept his head down, his face mostly shielded by the brim of his baseball cap, as students clapped and chanted, "We are proud of you! We are proud of you!"
A small smile crept up on his face.
His teacher, Karen Krueger, has spent much of the last few weeks helping her students understand Aiden's illness and encouraging them to find ways to show support.
"I was very shocked at first. I didn't immediately tell the kids," Krueger said. "They are all friends, they all play together. It was a very hard situation."
In her 11 years of teaching, she'd never been faced with a similar situation. She read books to help prepare her to discuss Aiden's cancer with her students, including "The Lemonade Club," a book by Patricia Polacco, which tells the story of a fifth-grade girl who is diagnosed with leukemia, and how her teacher and classmates react.
"They have handled it absolutely amazingly," Krueger said. "When he showed up in a wheelchair, they were kind and compassionate."
In addition to making cards and participating in fundraisers, a group of students worked together to write a children's book about Aiden's journey, titled "Aiden's Avengers." The book, with illustrations drawn by Krueger's students, was a way for Aiden's peers to express their own feelings about cancer.
"It's a very real world situation," Krueger said. "It's teaching them compassion."
The book has been entered in the Scholastic Kids Are Authors contest. It is dedicated,"To Aiden Taylor, and all children with cancer."
Jody Lewis, a paraprofessional assigned to work with Aiden, said her three main goals are to make sure that Aiden doesn't have any academic issues, to help him out physically, and to make sure he's happy and comfortable.
"He's a little uncomfortable. I had to take him out in the hall to get away from everyone for a few minutes," Lewis said.
While Aiden was out of the room, Krueger encouraged his classmates to express their feelings about Aiden's return.
"I'm excited because we haven't seen him in a while," Hailey Frost said.
Isaiah Bonaparte summed up his feelings in one word, "Happy!"
The class performed a rap for Aiden and discussed their book, and how it could help other children who might have a friend or family member going through cancer.
While Aiden may have been feeling shy and overwhelmed by his hero's welcome, when asked how he was feeling, he smiled and said, "Good."
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