A courageous mother grieves and honors her son by promoting kindness
A red-haired ten-year-old boy with a wide smile walked next to his mother’s shopping cart. Nearby, a little child wearing a Spiderman t-shirt pestered his dad for a toy, eventually throwing a fit. The father yelled, “Shut the f—up. Stop that f—ing crying or you’ll get a spanking right here in the store.”
Other adults in the aisle exchanged apprehensive glances before quickly looking away. But the red-haired boy did not look away.
“Mom, I’m going to say something to him,” he said.
“Peyton, no,” his mom said, concerned. “You need to stay out of it.”
But as they left the aisle, Peyton mumbled, “I need to go back . . .”
Jacki James watched as her thin, short son walked up to the yelling man and said, “It would probably be more helpful if you weren’t yelling at your kid.”
Jacki held her breath. The man stopped and looked at Peyton. Without saying a word, he grabbed his child’s hand and stormed away.
Jacki and Peyton argued briefly afterward. She told him not to be the “police officer of the world,” but he asked: “Why not? What if he hurts his son?” Jacki was still a little concerned but hugged Peyton anyway.
“I love how sweet you are,” she said.
Jacki had no inkling, however, that her son’s sense of justice would someday lead her, in his place, to start a nonprofit to encourage others to be kind in their words and actions.
Peyton missed two days of school because of an ear infection. When he returned to school, a boy came up behind Peyton, cupped his hand, and slapped it over Peyton’s ear. Because Peyton’s eardrum was already inflamed, the blow ruptured it, and he cried out in pain.
“Fag,” the boy teased Peyton.
When Jacki arrived later, her son’s ear was bleeding.
This boy had repeatedly thrown rocks at Peyton, tripped him on stairs, and called him names like “loser,” “short s—,” and “weirdo.”
Jacki wanted the school to move the boy to another class, but the school didn’t respond. Only after Peyton’s stepmother, an attorney in Houston, wrote a letter to the superintendent and principal was the boy moved to another class.
But other classmates still picked on Peyton. He had freckles, he was smart, he wore glasses, and he didn’t like sports—he didn’t fit some kids’ understanding of “normal.” He had only one friend at the school, and they bonded over a mutual love of anime and Dr. Who.
The next year, Peyton changed schools. Jacki hoped that the fresh start would improve his school experience. But the bullying continued.
Eighth Grade—October 2014
“How was school today?” Jacki asked 13-year-old Peyton on the drive home from his middle school on October 8th, 2014.
Peyton slowly listed the day’s activities: English, math, went to the principal’s office, gym . . .
“Wait, stop,” his mom interrupted. “Why did you go to the principal’s office?”
Peyton told Jacki that the day before a boy had laughed at him for believing in God. His principal tried to help but couldn’t identify the boy. Peyton felt let down because he didn’t get the help he wanted. The ride home was tense.
“Peyton, can you take the trash out?” Jacki asked, picking up the mail before they walked in.
He did. Jacki heard the door to his room close as she looked through the mail.
Everything was quiet. Twenty minutes passed. Jacki walked to Peyton’s door. Did he need a minute to brood? Did he need space? It was so quiet. She knocked.
No reply. She opened the door. Peyton was hanging from his ceiling fan.
Was this a joke? What in the world was going on? He didn’t move. Frantic, Jacki pulled him down. As she stared at Peyton’s still face and blue lips, she knew her CPR training wasn’t enough.
Fifteen minutes after a panicked call to 911, the house was flooded with lights and yelling and movement. Paramedics revived Peyton enough to hear his heartbeat and rushed him to the hospital.
His coma lasted five days before he was pronounced brain dead. Jacki and Peyton’s father, David, took him off life support on October 13th. His organs were donated; he saved six lives as he left this world.
Aftermath—and an Idea
Jacki sat with her sister, Janet Newton, in Janet’s kitchen after Peyton’s funeral on October 19th. She’d just heard about Peyton’s friend from his former middle school. In the chaos and grief that followed Peyton’s tragedy, no one remembered to reach out to the little girl, who heard rumors that Peyton had committed suicide and asked a teacher about it. The boy who had ruptured Peyton’s eardrum overheard them and said, “I’m not surprised. That boy was a freak.” The girl punched the boy in the stomach.
Jacki and Janet thought about the boy who’d been so persistently mean. “You know,” Jacki said, “he probably doesn’t know any better. He probably doesn’t know how to act—how to be nice to someone. He needs to be given an alternative behavior option.”
Janet had a bumper sticker on her refrigerator that read Kindness Matters. “That’s it,” Jacki said. “People need to know that kindness matters.”
Soon after, Jacki started a Facebook page, using a striking image of Peyton as the profile picture, called “Kindness Matters” to help her friends and family keep up with how she was doing.
New Purpose: February 2015
Jacki rolled over on a chilly morning last February, pulling the comforter over her head. Her alarm buzzed. She needed to get up if she was going to make it on time to East View High School, where she teaches English. But the pain of missing Peyton was so strong—she didn’t think she could get out of bed. She remembered the box of bright orange “Kindness Matters” t-shirts in her room. She’d promised to deliver them to colleagues at school.
Jacki had made t-shirts for her department members at first. But whenever Jacki wore one, at a “No Place for Hate” rally or in pictures on the Facebook page, people asked where they could buy one. The t-shirt’s popularity surprised Jacki, just as the popularity of her Facebook page, where she posted daily kindness challenges, had. It had gained 18,000 likes from people all over the world in under five months.
She had mailed out 7,000 “Kindness Matters” rubber bracelets and 700 t-shirts. The bracelets went to every state and six countries—reminding people everywhere to choose kindness. Each package included a business card with Peyton’s picture. It would have made Peyton happy to be so popular. He wanted to be a YouTube star and had created a YouTube channel and posted one shaky video, taken with a cell phone camera.
Jacki looked at the box of t-shirts. She pulled herself out of bed. “If I stay under these covers, no one will remember him,” she told herself, smiling at the idea that she was helping Peyton become something he always wanted to be—a “sensation.”
Looking to the Future
Jacki receives Facebook messages frequently from parents of children who are bullied. They ask for advice and thank her for being vocal about Peyton’s story. One parent reached out to Jacki for help when her daughter was bullied. Jacki asked the girl, “What do you think you should do now? Peyton always wanted us to be kind.”
“That’s what I’m trying to do,” the young girl said. “I’m praying for the girls who bullied me.”
Jacki has also been invited to share Peyton’s story and promote Kindness Matters at ten schools in Williamson County and one in Flower Mound, near Dallas. She and Peyton’s dad started a scholarship at the Texas A&M Department of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, the program that Peyton hoped to attend, in their son’s memory.
Jacki continues to post kindness challenges at kindness-matters.org, as well as on the Kindness Matters Facebook Page. She says that people tell her on the Facebook page that the Kindness Matters campaign is changing their lives and that they’re talking to their children about kindness.
“That,” says Jacki, “is the legacy Peyton’s leaving behind.”
Find more resources on the problem of bullying at these sites:
Kindness Matters: kindness-matters.org
Madeline’s Place: www.thesandboxatmadelinesplace.com
No Place for Hate: austin.adl.org/noplaceforhate