Brock Smith just wanted to be normal again.
It's the reason the 9-year-old begged his parents so desperately to return to school, the reason why he wanted so badly to be like his older brother and report to class with kids his own age. It's also the reason the second-grader was so excited to start at Eastridge Community Elementary School on Jan. 6.
"He just wants to go to school, he wants to be normal," said Steven Smith, Brock's father. "He doesn't care if that means doing homework, writing papers, running around the playground. He doesn't care what it is. That's the one thing my son's been asking for."
Over the past two years, finding that kind of normalcy has been a challenge for Brock and his family. In that time, Brock has been battling an aggressive form of brain cancer, and the fight has made him subject to the most draining and exhausting forms of treatment. Brock and his family packed up and moved from Florida to Colorado to get treatment at the Children's Hospital Colorado in Aurora.
"Brock had the hardest treatment there is before he came to us," said Jennifer Madden, a pediatric nurse practitioner at Children's Hospital. "He had already had a lot of chemotherapy and radiation. We did a complete evaluation, and we were able to do a complete bone marrow transplant for him here. So far, he's doing great. It's amazing how well he's done."
Thanks to the treatment, Brock was able to take the first step in realizing his long-held goal earlier this month. He reported to Eastridge the first week after winter break, eager to start a daily routine outside the confines of a hospital room.
He didn't come to class alone.
Madden arrived shortly after the first bell to speak directly to Brock and the rest of the second-grade class. Speaking in gentle and encouraging tones, Madden spoke about Brock's struggles during the past two years. She talked about what happens when cells divide incorrectly and form a tumor. She explained the reason why Brock sometimes uses a wheelchair, the reason for his visible scars and the catheter attached to his chest.
"Those are some things you might notice that Brock has trouble with, because of where the brain tumor was," Madden said. "It made it hard for him to move his body or talk. But you know what? His thinking is just fine."
But Madden's central message wasn't about the details of Brock's ailments or his treatment. She stressed a much more important message.
"What I want you to know is that cancer is not contagious. It's not a germ you can catch like the cold or the flu," Madden said. "Also, Brock didn't do anything wrong to get it. His mom and dad didn't do anything wrong. It's just something that happened, and we found the medicine we needed to cure it."
She also fielded an important question about contact.
"Brock loves high-fives," she said. "And side hugs are awesome. He wouldn't be here if it wasn't safe."
The rest of the class took in the information with focus and respect, asking questions about the fish tanks at the Children's Hospital Colorado and offering memories of their own trips to the emergency room for minor injuries. Brock sat among his peers, smiling and fielding queries with simple answers.
Brock's father sat in the back of the class as Madden spoke, keeping a close watch on his son and smiling slightly. He saw the question-and-answer session as an important step in helping Brock find a normal routine. That kind of personal attention was one of the many reasons he and his family chose the Cherry Creek School District.
"At the end of the day, he's just as bright and intelligent as any other second-grader sitting in the school. He's no different; he just physically looks a little different," Steven Smith said. "It's nice, because these kids saw a new kid in a wheelchair and right behind him came a professional nurse. I think that sends it home to the kids that he's not a weirdo or a funny-looking kid. He has adults who follow him and take care of him."
Brock's first day back at school was another step in a long recovery process, one that's offered plenty of challenges and heartache for his entire family. But the second-grader's drive to recover his normalcy didn't dim during all of the treatments. His determination was an inspiration for all of the nurses and doctors in charge of his treatment; it was a rallying point for his own father.
"He's got a sheer drive in his soul to survive, to fight. That's Brock," Steven Smith said. "No matter how hard this cancer tried to kick him, he kicked it back … He's a lot tougher than we are. I cried over a flu shot. He used to get a shot every day. He's not scared of anything."
That includes the first day of school.