Inside a classroom door covered in blue paper, Make-A-Wish banners and words that read “Happy Hailey Grace Bretzius Day,” third graders were busy going about the school day when someone knocked on the door.
“Hailey, could you get the door?” asked Hailey's teacher Ms. Crankshaw.
Hailey, in a blue-and-white striped summer dress, swung open the door. Her face revealed the surprise as the New York Times best-selling author peeked around the door, smiling at her. Before words were spoken, the two embraced, burying their heads in each other’s necks, as if they were long-lost friends.
“Are you going to show me your school?” asked R.J. Palacio, her arms locked around Hailey’s waist.
“Of course!” responded Hailey as she skipped into the hallway, leading Palacio.
Hailey, who was born with Lymphatic Malformation and has undergone facial surgeries that have left scars, wished for R.J. Palacio, author of the best-selling children’s book "Wonder," to visit her school to talk about kindness.
Hailey explained every inch of the 1925 brick school building to Palacio. The two ducked into classrooms, waving and introducing the famous author to a few classes. Palacio studied the welcome and Wonder-themed posters that lined the halls. Hailey pointed out hers and the two bent their heads together to review it.
After introducing Palacio to her class, Hailey helped her class lead a “Kindness and Caring” assembly for Kindergarten, first and second grade students. Each member of her class, including Hailey, read a moment of kindness they had experienced. In the end, the students spelled out “Choose Kind,” an anecdote from Palacio’s book.
The morning neared lunch time. Hailey and her family joined Palacio for a private lunch of Hailey’s choice, Buffalo Wild Wings and a pink cake. The two chatted about family and favorites, the Make-A-Wish Michigan mission and Wonder-inspired experiences.
“This is the best lunch ever in the history of lunches,” proclaimed Hailey. “I wish R.J. could stay the whole week. My friends are here, my family is here … what’s more fun than this?”
The group headed back to the auditorium where Hailey again took the stage for an assembly for third, fourth and fifth grade students. After a brief introduction and message from Make-A-Wish Michigan President & CEO Karen Davis, Principal Hatt handed the microphone to Hailey, who invited her family on stage. She spoke about kindness and what Palacio’s book had meant to her. Her dad, Keith, told the group about her journey. He asked Hailey to smile.
“See that?” He asked while pointing to Hailey’s grin. He explained that doctors had taken a muscle from her leg to make the action possible.
Palacio read a portion of her book to the students, followed by many raised hands. Hailey walked the microphone to kids, as each asked Palacio questions about her book’s plot.
“When Hailey had the microphone in hand, she was basically leading us all,” said Palacio. “It’s been incredibly moving for me.”
Mr. Hatt closed the assembly and a small crowd lined a table where Hailey and Palacio began signing Palacio’s book. Soon the students rushed out to recess. Hailey led Palacio to the school yard, where a group of her classmates and Palacio began playing foursquare.
“I have never played foursquare before, so that was fun,” said Palacio.
The duo returned to Hailey’s classroom and her classmates showered Palacio with questions about her book, being an author and more. Afterwards, the group joined other students in the auditorium for a Wonder-filled activity before Hailey escorted Palacio to her town car.
“I was humbled that anyone would want to meet me. It’s been one of the most amazing experiences in my life. Hailey is so powerful in presence,” said Palacio. “As an author, it’s been very moving that your words have made an impact. She’s so confident and sure of who she is. She’s just a powerful force.”
In the parking lot, Hailey embraced Palacio in a hug as the car waited. Her face scrunched on Palacio’s shoulder.
“It’s been an amazing day,” said Palacio. “The whole ‘be kind’ movement has epitomized in Hailey. It’s been truly amazing.”