This Heartbreaking Story Will Remind You Just How Much Kindness Really Matters

Updated: Apr. 25, 2023

Her moving story will stay with you long after you finish reading.

kidCourtesy Jacki James

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Peyton James was an amazing boy. 

He had beautiful red hair, piercing hazel eyes that changed from green to blue, and a quirky sense of humor. He loved animals, road trips, Minecraft, Legos and chocolate ice cream. He was my Angel-Face and now he is my angel in heaven. 

He was born in 2001, was nine weeks early and weighed only 2.52 lbs. He spent 35 days in the NICU before being able to come home. While in the hospital, he spent three weeks on pure oxygen and was fed through a tube. What wasn’t known then was that the oxygen and liquid nutrition was causing a discoloration in the enamel of his permanent teeth—a problem that we wouldn’t see for several years.

In second grade, the teasing began. 

“Why don’t you brush your teeth? Why are your teeth so nasty?”

Although his teeth were healthy, they were a mottled yellow color, kind of like the color of a popcorn kernel.  He was also picked on because of his hair, his glasses and the fact that he was smaller than most of the other boys. He was seen as weak and became a target. (These are the silent signs your child is getting bullied.) 

As Peyton got older, he often wondered why people were so mean to him. He would ask me, “Mom, why can’t people just be nice?” 

[pullquote]“Mom, why can’t people just be nice?” [pullquote]

I never really knew how to answer that question, so I tried to encourage him to be the nice one. I also told him all the things a parent tells a child—that he was special, that he was smart, that he was loved. But as kids grow older, words of a parent begin to pale in comparison to the words of his peers. 

In November of 2013, Peyton had his first suicidal event. For years, he had been tormented by several boys at his school. Peyton started to say that his father and I would be better off without him and that he didn’t want to be here anymore. At first, we thought he was just overreacting, but when the comments didn’t stop, I knew he was in trouble, so I took him to the local emergency room. Sadly, ER’s don’t really deal with mental health issues and we were referred to a therapist. He soon began weekly therapy and seemed to be feeling better. But this was short-lived.

In the summer of 2014, I got a new teaching job in a better school district, but this meant Peyton would have to change schools. I helped him see that this was a new beginning and that the bullies from his previous school would be a thing of the past; he was nervous but excited. As he started 8th grade at his new school, he met one boy with whom he had common interests and they became friends.  However, the teasing and bullying continued at this school, too. Peyton was an easy target because he didn’t like what other kids liked. He didn’t play sports; he loved Dr. Who, YouTube and anime, and would rather read a book than play outside. He was soon being called a “loser” or a “geek.” He was devastated. The difference was that he stopped telling me about the bullying.   

A month into his new school, Peyton told me about what was going on. He had reported an incident to the principal the day before and the principal just told him to just avoid the other boy. I asked Peyton why he hadn’t told me this was going on and he said, “Mom, you can’t fix this.” 

[pullquote]“Mom, you can’t fix this.”[pullquote]

After we got home, Peyton went into his room, typical of teenage boys. I thought he just needed some time alone. After about 20 minutes, I went to check on him and that’s when I found him. He had hung himself from the ceiling fan. There was no warning and no note.

After a frantic call to 911 and 25 minutes of CPR by paramedics, Peyton was transported to the local hospital and then taken by helicopter to Dell Children’s Hospital in Austin, Texas. The doctors did everything they could to stabilize him and to allow him to heal, but the injury to his brain was just too severe. On October 13, 2014 at 12:02 in the morning, Peyton was pronounced brain dead. At 8:30 that night, he gave his last and most profound gift by donating his organs, corneas and skin. He saved the lives of six people and enhanced the lives of countless others. 

After his death, I was numb. I don’t really remember a lot of the next few weeks, but I do remember a conversation I had with the mother of one of Peyton’s close friends, Phoebe. She told me that Phoebe had been crying at school and the boy who had tormented Peyton for all those years saw and knew why. He said to her, “I’m not surprised. That boy was a freak.” This was like a punch in the gut. I just couldn’t understand why one person would chose to be so incredibly mean to another person. No good could come from that statement, so why would he say it?

It was then that I realized that, as educators, we have done our kids a disservice.  We’ve taught them about bullies and bullying behavior. We’ve given them detailed ideas of what bullies do and told them not to be one. What we haven’t done, though, is teach them how to be nice to one another. We just assume they know. We hope that when we tell them to “be nice” that they know how, but often they don’t. (Here’s what to do if your child is the bully.)

I knew I had to do something. That’s when Kindness Matters was born. Don’t take bullying lying down–follow the examples of people who stood up to unkindness, like this town that protested antisemitism together. 

Courtesy Jacki JamesI started it as a Facebook page with the intent of sharing stories of kindness and reminders to be kind to one another, even when it wasn’t easy. We also started a Weekly Kindness Challenge that gave people a kindness task to perform each week.  At first, there were only a few hundred followers. Soon after, I was asked to speak at my school’s No Place For Hate rally and I shared Peyton’s story. Then, I started speaking at other schools, sharing Peyton’s story and using participation activities to show kids the real power of their words and the power of kindness. To date, we have given presentations in 38 schools across Texas and our Facebook family has grown to over 29,000. We’ve also sent Kindness Matters t-shirts and wristbands to all 50 states and 9 countries. Also, because Peyton wanted to be a veterinarian when he grew up, we’ve started a scholarship in his name at the Texas A&M University School of Veterinary Medicine. We hope to fulfill the $25,000 endowment of the scholarship fund so that the Peyton A. James Memorial Scholarship will be a permanent addition to the Texas A&M Foundation.

It is my deepest hope that we can change the culture of our society and leave all of the negativity and name-calling behind. Creating a culture of kindness has to start with one person, so why not with me? Or you? 

For more information about Kindness Matters or to follow us on social media, head to Kindness Matters. You can reach us at [email protected].

Reader’s Digest has teamed up with Kindness Matters to encourage people do Do Something Nice Today. We are selling t-shirts with this motto to get people to do just that — something nice. All proceeds go to Kindness Matters. Join us