Chance encounter decades later reunites student, principal

James Peyton made a big difference in the life of Medra Van Zuyen when she was a child and he was principal of Athens Elementary School.
James Peyton made a big difference in the life of Medra Van Zuyen when she was a child and he was principal of Athens Elementary School. By Mary Meehan

He remembers her as the girl with the 6-foot-long snake.

She remembers him as the man who changed her life by teaching her how to learn.

And 40 years after their lives first intersected, they met again and sat together at the kitchen table and cried.

"I look at kids now who have trouble in school ..." said Medra Van Zuyen who credits her elementary school principal James Peyton for changing her life. "They are being told they are never going to make it. Man, how blessed I was that I had a bunch of people who said, 'We can make a difference' and 'Let us try.' "

Peyton, who had thousands of kids under his care over the years and recalled Van Zuyen not as a girl with special needs but as the child who gave a yearly presentation about her pet snake, said he was surprised to hear her story.

The two reunited recently when Van Zuyen came to help Peyton, 96, with household chores through the Home Instead Agency.

Van Zuyen works part-time and fills in for regular caregivers. The first few times she worked in his home she didn't recognize this Mr. Peyton as her Mr. Peyton.

Then, while doing the laundry one day, she noticed a picture of him that was taken around the time she knew him as a child. She couldn't believe it.

"When you're a kid, you never think to say thank you," she said. "As I got older, I always wanted to tell him how much what he did meant to me."

She rushed up the stairs to tell him her story at his kitchen table.

"She sat down and just started telling me her life story," he said.

Van Zuyen, 49, was halfway through her fourth-grade year when Fayette County redrew school attendance lines and she was transferred to Athens Elementary.

Her parents were reluctant to send their special-needs daughter to a smaller, rural school. A swing-set accident when she was a toddler had resulted in a brain injury that made learning difficult for Van Zuyen. Her parents had hired tutors and put her in special classes at school, but Van Zuyen said she entered fourth grade not knowing her numbers, letters or colors.

Peyton heard about the family's reluctance and gave them a call.

"If you will send her here we can give her the help that she needs," he told the parents.

Peyton, who retired from Fayette County schools in 1976, doesn't remember the call. But the pride in his school and faith in his staff is still evident.

"That school turned out to be one of the top schools in the county," Peyton said. He was and is still passionate about helping children with special needs. What he did with Van Zuyen and other special needs students was mainstream them during a time when the practice wasn't common.

"It gives them a chance not to be stigmatized," he said.

Van Zuyen, who was then Medra Hayes, said that under Peyton's leadership a team of teachers went about trying to find a way to reach her.

They tapped into her love of animals. She learned her colors because bears are brown and sheep are white and chickens are yellow. She learned her numbers because she would go out to the family chicken coop and collect eggs each morning. Her teacher would ask her each day how many she had collected.

"I think it was kind of rigged," said Van Zuyen, adding, "At first there was only one egg and then two, and then three."

They paired her with students who were more academically advanced and encouraged her to share what she knew best. That was snakes.

Her father, Rodney Hayes, was a biology professor at Transylvania University. The family had a pet indigo snake that Van Zuyen brought to school and presented to the entire fourth grade.

All of those efforts began to pay off. Numbers began to mean something. She had words for colors. By the end of the year she was on par with her class, she said. She went on to graduate from high school on time and attended Midway College for a few years.

Her life took her to California for several years before she moved back home to care for her ailing mother. After her mother's death, Van Zuyen was looking for fulfilling work, and that's how she came to find Peyton.

Now, she said, she sees helping the elderly man with the sharp mind stay in the home where he's lived for decades as a small way to give back to him what he gave to her.

"It's wonderful to go over there. I can't imagine what my life would have been like if I didn't get to go to that school," she said.