CLEARWATER — Six months, six days and eight hours after she walked out of a flaming bedroom, 10-year-old Kiki Pressley couldn't wait to reclaim her childhood.
Kiki was ready for her first day as a Sandy Lane Elementary fourth-grader on Friday an hour and a half early. She was fully dressed, backpack beside her on the sofa, as dawn broke. She had not been to school since she woke up at midnight on Feb. 23, on fire from the waist up. She has endured 15 surgeries.
She couldn't say exactly how long she had shopped for her back-to-school outfit at Wal-Mart, but she knows it was as long as a turn of the Earth. "It was light when we went in and dark when we left."
Kiki chose a fall ensemble: Paco orange T-shirt, orange plaid pants, orange slippers — with white bead necklace, five orange and gray plastic bracelets, Cheetah backpack and Hannah Montana lunchbox. As they say on Project Runway, she was fabulous.
Kiki had spent 72 days at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Cincinnati striving for the moment on Friday.
Allison Root, a child life specialist for Shriners, visited Sandy Lane Elementary in Clearwater on Thursday to tell Kiki's new classmates about all she had been through. She spoke to all 550 kids, grade by grade, in the school library. The little ones sat on the floor "criss-cross applesauce," and they used their "soft voices."
Root told them that Kiki had been asleep when her bedroom caught fire. She had to walk through flames hot enough to melt a TV set. She was burned from the waist up, but alerted the family that her 2-year-old cousin Tinker Bell was still in the burning house. An uncle found Tinker Bell, wailing in a cloud of smoke, in the kitchen. She had to have physical therapy just to be able to stretch her arms over her head.
Root had all the kids at Sandy Lane stretch their arms.
She passed around the elastic undergarments and clear plastic mask that Kiki must wear for about another year in order to flatten her burn scars. She showed them photos of Kiki in her mask. Wide-eyed and solemn, the children were full of questions.
"Will she get hot outside?"
"Can we make her a card?"
"Do her clothes itch?"
"Can she snap her fingers?" (Everyone snapped their fingers.)
"Can she get on the swing with us?"
"Can she climb the monkey bars?"
"Was she scared?"
"Can she cry with her mask on?"
On Friday, Kiki was able to answer questions herself. Kids crowded around her in the hallway. Many of them knew her from her days as a cheerleader for the Greenwood Panthers football team. She has at least five cousins at Sandy Lane, including one in her class.
Her fourth-grade teacher, Olivia McAnuff, promised to help her catch up.
Miss McAnuff praised her "concepts of writing and story telling" and offered to give her extra help in the mornings with her handwriting. Kiki has to write with her left hand because of burns on her right.
After school, Kiki seemed fully assimilated to life as a schoolgirl again. She displayed the eagerness typical of all fourth-graders to share her day's adventures with a grownup.
How was school?
How's your new teacher?
What did you learn today?
John Barry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2258.