As the small girl lay nestled in her mother’s arms, singer Clay Aiken began a soft serenade.
"When I see you smile," he sang, just loud enough for 11-year-old Mikayla Resh and mom Kimberly to hear, "I can face the world."
Mikayla’s big brown eyes were open wide, mostly unblinking. She didn’t move. The Lower Nazareth Elementary fifth-grader showed no signs that she recognized the singer made famous as a runner-up on the TV show "American Idol."
Born with severe brain injuries, Mikayla has cerebral palsy and is not able to walk or talk.
But that’s just on the outside, nurse Marty Thomas said after Aiken finished crooning. "She smiles with her heart."
Emotions of all sorts were rampant Monday with Aiken’s surprise visit during a school assembly at Nazareth Area High School to honor the 19 students who wrote "Our Friend Mikayla."
Students at Lower Nazareth Elementary, bused in for the occasion, know about the book, which was written and illustrated in the spring of 2005 by Mikayla’s classmates. The Bubel/Aiken Foundation announced in May it would pay to publish the book.
But students had no idea they’d be joined by the organization’s namesake, and Aiken’s arrival drew gasps and cheers, along with bewildered looks by some who turned to each other as if seeking confirmation it was really Aiken.
He handed the authors, now in fifth grade, a copy of the book before placing the last one on Mikayla’s lap as she sat in her wheelchair on the side of the stage.
Story time began.
"Mikayla goes to the same stores we do … and she might even get her ears pierced. We think she should," read Aiken before turning quizzically to the girl.
"Did you get your ears pierced, Mikayla?" he asked.
"Yes!" the group of authors loudly responded.
The book is the brainchild of Kimberly Resh, who each year used to donate a book to the school library. She noticed a gap in subject matter she decided could be filled by her daughter’s classmates: a book written by children about children with disabilities.
Resh worked with students to develop content and art. She persuaded Aiken, in town for a sold-out show Monday night at the State Theatre Center for the Arts in Easton, to visit the school.
Before "Idol," Aiken was on his way to becoming a teacher, studying special education. Mike Bubel was a boy with autism he worked with, and Aiken began noticing how difficult it was for someone with special needs to do anything "normal."
"The book is a prime example of what we want to do … spreading the word of inclusion," Aiken said during a smaller gathering with the authors after the assembly.
Aiken’s gift with children was quickly apparent, and students rushed to answer his questions about how the book was developed.
He received mixed responses. "It took anywhere from 30 minutes to a week to half a year to write the book," Aiken surmised.
Aiken next challenged the students to think about how life would change when they entered middle school, where students from Nazareth’s three elementary schools would merge.
"What if the cool thing becomes to be mean to her?" he asked.
Students rushed to Mikayla’s defense.
"She can still relate to us. She cheers. … She can do the same things we can," Megan Gangewere said.
Aiken said he hopes the foundation’s work outlasts any personal success he has as an entertainer. "I think there’s a lot of people who have a platform" and don’t take advantage of it, he said.
No matter how excited the authors were by Aiken’s visit, the final surprise announced at the end of the nearly two-hour school visit generated near hysteria — rides back to Lower Nazareth Elementary in two limousines.
PAGES TO REMEMBER
What: "Our Friend Mikayla"
Authors: Michael Allen, Alayna Berardi, Mackenzie Dilsaver, Megan Gangewere, Kevin Garzillo, Joshua Golden, Brian Gorrie, Logan Houptley, Melissa Mastro, Ryan McDonnell, John Nemeth, Mikayla Resh, Taylor Rigante, Tatiana Sampson, Jonathan Sandone, Devon Saul, Joseph Schepis, Brandon Shipper, Ashley Werkheiser
To buy: online at www.bubelaiken.org