Zach Pickard enters kindergarten Wednesday, and he is preparing to be king of the hill.
Zach, 5, has the rapid-aging disease progeria, one of the rarest medical conditions in the world. Like other children with progeria, he is smaller than his fellow kindergarten students, his legs tiny and his head bald with prominent veins.
Nonetheless, he looked kindergarten-cool in his Sponge Bob porkpie hat and sunglasses at the Popsicles on the Playground meet-and-greet that Holly Martin, Zach's teacher at Stonewall Elementary School, held Monday evening.
Martin calls her students "The Mighty Martins."
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When some of the other 16 children in Zach's class seem reticent, Zach is running almost non-stop, his arms flapping like pinwheels.
Zach might be small in comparison, but he is changing. The baby who once struggled to pull himself up steps carries himself now like a thriving boy.
He already has seen his classroom, is not intimidated by school, and almost everything is funny to him.
He runs, talking to himself and making a trilling noise, until he finds the top of the play structure. There, he surveys his new environment from the platform that is its highest point.
Joseph Turner, his buddy from day care, pals around with Zach on the playground, poking his longtime friend from a lower tier of the play structure.
Tina Pickard, Zach's mom, said her boy has gotten more rowdy as he has grown older. He holds his own in the flash-and-forget flare-ups for playground dominance. He still likes the Little Critter series of children's books, in which the Critter, a furry creature with a loving family, tackles the issues of resolving small problems and learning to do things by himself.
Martin watches each student take a push-up ice cream, a pastel wheel of frozen colors, and lays her first rule on the students: "You have already learned something about being a kindergarten student. When I call, you come."
And then she gifts them with an even better rule as the ice cream is distributed: "We take what we get, and we don't throw a fit."
When Zach removes his hat, one student looks at him, puzzled. "What is that on his head?" he asks, looking at the prominent network of veins.
But since heads vary on most people anyway, he quickly forgets the matter and runs off to play.
The first weeks of school, Martin said, will include lessons on how each student is special.
Tina and Brandon Pickard, Zach's father, are hoping for word of more drug trials to slow or reverse the damage of progeria — the stiff legs, lack of growth and heart damage. Zach participated in earlier trials in Boston and still takes medication for the Progeria Research Association's triple drug trial. Plans for another drug trial are awaiting FDA approval.
Progeria is an extremely rare defect that causes cells to age far more rapidly than normal. Children with progeria die of heart disease at an average age of 13. Eighty children living with progeria have been identified from 31 countries. Some live into their 20s.
The Progeria Research Foundation describes the genetic flaw that causes progeria as "a tiny point mutation in a child's DNA, a one-letter typo in the billions of letters that make up the chromosomal book."
Regardless, Zach is starting kindergarten, and there's reason to celebrate.
"He's going to make the Mighty Martins mightier," said his teacher.