Today, as school starts at McCulloch Intermediate School, one particular chair is empty.
Ryan Michael, 11, the sixth-grader who has been in desperate need of a kidney transplant, did not join the classmates that he united last May. Students who hosted the Run for Ryan to raise money and raise awareness for his kidney transplant might at first cringe at Ryan's absence.
But the reason Ryan didn't answer the opening bell is because he is at home, recuperating from a successful kidney transplant that took place on Aug. 7 at Children's Medical Center Dallas. He is in a "virtual classroom" at home until doctors say his recovery has progressed enough for him to return to the classroom environment.
He'll be back at school soon.
Ryan's deeply religious family held a prayer session at their University Park home the night before the transplant.
More than 150 people attended. The featured speaker was Ryan Nixon, who is Ryan Michael's favorite summer camp counselor at the Kanakuk family camp the Michaels attend near Branson, Mo. Two years ago, Mr. Nixon was assigned by K-Life to mentor Highland Park students, and he moved to Dallas.
Mr. Nixon stayed in contact with the Michael family, and last year he put together a bimonthly Bible study for Ryan Michael and 15 of his friends.
Big Ryan and little Ryan developed a strong bond, cemented by mutually deep Christian beliefs. When little Ryan got sick, big Ryan was there like a caring, older brother.
Mr. Nixon was moved by the number of fifth-graders who banded together to help their classmate with the Run for Ryan. He and his wife of two years, Callie - a 2001 Highland Park High School graduate - both got tested to see if they were potential donors.
At the Aug. 6 prayer session in the Michaels' back yard, Mr. Nixon spoke of the hand of God at work. Both he and his wife were ideal matches to donate a kidney. What can be a three- to five-year search for the right donor took three weeks.
When the transplant was scheduled with Mr. Nixon as donor, Ryan Michael, a golf enthusiast, wanted to meet someone who had received a transplanted kidney and who still plays golf. Both Ryans visited Norm Bagwell, a Dallas banker who received a lifesaving kidney transplant. Mr. Bagwell calmed the boy's fears and dazzled him with stories of meeting Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
When the kidney was accepted by little Ryan's body, his mother, Sally Michael, melted into tears of relief. And Mr. Nixon credited his parents, Mike and Gayle Nixon of Austin, with giving him his blood type and two good kidneys.
"It is an amazing miracle," Mr. Nixon said. "God put me in a position to help someone in need. By sacrificing a little of myself to let someone else live, how could I say no to that?"
Ryan Michael wanted to compare scars.
He also asked Mr. Nixon to flex his arm muscle. He did, and Ryan Michael was impressed.
"Good," he said. "That means I've got a strong kidney."
Kirk Dooley is a freelance writer in University Park.