Different. That’s what I’ve always been. As far back as kindergarten, the other kids saw I was clumsy and got really distracted sometimes. They didn’t want to be friends, so God and I got extra close. One night in my room, when I was five years old, he even spoke to me. “Kyle,” he said, “this is God. You’re going to have a baby sister.” Sure enough, a few days later Mom found out she was pregnant. My new sister, Libby, never shied away from me or laughed when I fell down. I wished the other kids could see me the way she did. God, I wondered, what makes me different?
I was about to start first grade when my doctor discovered I had a massive brain tumor. Mom did her best to help me understand my condition. “You are going to need an operation, Kyle,” she said.
“Will I die?”
Tears sprang to Mom’s eyes. “We’ll be praying hard that doesn’t happen, honey. But remember, God is waiting for all of us in heaven.” She hugged me tight. I’d read about heaven in the Bible, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to go there. What if heaven was just like school? What if nobody wanted to be my friend there either?
A few months after my first tumor was removed, doctors discovered another tumor, another one that required surgery. During this second operation I felt myself lifting out of my body. Floating in the air, I watched the doctors operating, passing instruments and checking machines. Then a bright white light appeared. I moved toward it down a long tunnel. At the end was Jesus. He took me by the hand and walked me down a red carpet. Rows of angels stood on either side, their large wings arched high above their heads, waving to me like I was their friend. “Welcome, Kyle!” they said. I was so excited I jumped and ran—two things I hadn’t been able to do in a long, long time. Then I saw my Uncle Sterling, who had died several years before. “I don’t ever want to leave,” I told him. I raced into his arms. Uncle Sterling held me close, and said gently, “You’ll have to go back, Kyle. It’s not your time.”
Go back? I thought. Now that I knew how it felt to be completely accepted? “No way!” I shouted. “It’s true, Kyle,” a man answered. His voice sounded familiar. I’d heard it before . . . that night, in my room when I was five. “I have a special plan for you,” he said.
That Christmas, my family, whose extra money all went toward my treatment, was “adopted” by the students of Shadle Park High School. We got a care package with a holiday dinner, toys for Libby and a Shadle Park sweatshirt for me. I took it straight up to my room to try on. Pulling it over my head, I pictured myself as a teenager at Shadle Park High walking proudly down the hall in a sweatshirt like this. So what if my dream seemed impossible? Doctors thought it was impossible I’d live this long. And God said he had a plan for me. Was it too much to ask that it include Shadle Park High? Against all odds, I walked through the doors of Shadle Park High as a freshman four years later. Sure, I wasn’t exactly one of the crowd, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me now. I attended football games, pep rallies and school dances, where I stood to the side, tapping my cane to the music, occasionally finding a girl willing to dance with me.
Sophomore year I started helping out with the adopt-a-family program that had provided me with the Shadle Park High sweatshirt. Still, there were times I envied my “normal” classmates. Just once I want to be Kyle, instead of “the guy who’s dying,” I thought one afternoon as I sat in the library. Someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was Principal Arndt. “Kyle,” he said, “we’re having an assembly on Friday. Would you give a talk on the adopt-a-family program?”
Normally I might have been reluctant to get up in front of the whole school, but the adopt-a-family program was important to me. Besides, hadn’t God said he had a plan for me? Maybe this was it. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
Junior year, my only memory of being completely accepted was still that moment in heaven. Lying awake after a particularly disastrous dance, I made a bold request: I know you have a plan for me, God. But just once I’d like to feel that good again here, on earth. Then I went to sleep and let God think it over.
A few weeks later we filed into the auditorium for an assembly. When we were all settled the student body president, Tom Friedlander, got up to hand out varsity letters to those lucky athletes who’d qualified for them. “Letters are awarded to players who have proved most valuable to the team,” Tom explained. I wondered which of my classmates were about to get the green S that was like a big hug from the whole entire school. “Letters are given for football, basketball, baseball and track,” Tom went on, building the suspense. “This year, the Student Association has added a new category, courage. And—by unanimous vote—the first to receive a letter in courage is Kyle Woodard.”
Did he just say I lettered? The kids sitting behind me gave me a gentle push forward. As I walked up to the front of the auditorium with my cane, I heard the rumble of 1,700 students rising to their feet, cheering. I didn’t need 20/20 vision to know they had the same expressions on their faces as the angels that had rolled out the red carpet for me in heaven. You’re one of us, the kids were telling me. Welcome, Kyle.
You couldn’t peel that letterman jacket from my back. When people passed me in the hall, I smiled, knowing they were looking at my name and the green S stitched beside it. “That stuff you said at assembly really got me thinking,” one girl said. “Remember how you talked about feeling like everybody thinks you’re weird? That’s just how I feel a lot of the time.”
Over and over I heard the same thing. Kids seemed to use congratulating me on the jacket as an excuse to tell me their secrets. Feeling different, which I’d always thought kept me isolated, was the very thing that brought me closer to them. They were experiencing these feelings for the first time, but I was already an expert! Who better to help them than me? Finally I was just one of the crowd. And part of a very special plan.