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Good news: The oncologist was wrong. Bad news: Lyndon's body was rejecting the transplanted kidney he'd had for seven years, requiring such steep dosages of immuno-suppressant drugs to counter the antibodies coursing through him that now a mere cold could kill him.
The boy became a masked, gloved, wheelchair-bound hermit. Slipping in and out of the back door of the Children's Medical Center in Dallas all last summer. Shuttling to and from the sorriest sort of Ronald McDonald House—the kind without ESPN—where he lived for 2½ months, compelling Dad to lay the phone next to the TV back home, three hours away, so Lyndon could hear LeBron James's Decision. Straining to remain that sunny-side-up kid at whom nurses marveled as he underwent plasmapheresis treatments that extracted his blood every other day through a catheter implanted in his jugular vein in an attempt to filter out the flood of life-threatening antibodies. But when that failed, and worried doctors decided to try chemotherapy, something finally broke in the boy who never complained. He buried his head in his pillow and wept.
On the eve of his freshman year he was sent home with strict orders not to attend school or expose himself to anyone outside his family. Any sign of a cold or flu in the family meant that either Lyndon or the sniffler had to be shipped out immediately to Grandma Lula Baty's farmhouse 30 miles to the north. Everyday life in Knox City, where cellphones fell silent after Hello and a teenager had to splatter 70 miles worth of bugs on the windshield of his daddy's pickup just to reach the nearest shopping mall, was isolating enough. But this....
Sheri, scurrying ahead to disinfect every room he entered, to squirt liquid soap into the palms of the few relatives he saw, watched her son's appetite vanish. Then his energy. Then the light in his hazel eyes.
Louis, coming inside from milking the cows each morning, had to drag his son out of bed and stand him up ... only for him to sag onto the couch in his bedclothes, staring blankly at SportsCenter and ignoring his mother's pleas to come to the table for home schooling. He pictured his long-lost friends getting their driver's permits, hanging out at the Sonic in Haskell, tubing the Brazos when the river was up, spinning out four-wheelers in the fields. Lyndon was too extroverted to go on like this, holed up at home without friends or activities, choking down 24 pills a day, too listless to walk any farther than the end of the driveway, too lonely even to rattle off the Cowboys' off-season needs. "I'm just a guinea pig," he murmured to Sheri. "You're my only friend, my only teacher and my mother. I just want it to be over." He wasted away to 65 pounds, and his parents grew desperate.
His father was the most powerful figure in town, the man in charge of its largest employer and the hub of all its activities and entertainment ... but he was helpless. Until one day last December, when he thought to call his school district's regional service center in Wichita Falls to see if the technology crew there had any ideas—TV camera, Skype, anything—that would allow a sick boy to monitor classes electronically. Mike Campbell, one of the techies, called back, saying, "You won't believe this, but just yesterday...." A salesman from SKC Communications named Victor Cuellar, looking for some other way to market a new remote-controlled robot that had been designed for doctors and family members to visit hospital patients from afar or for absent managers and consultants to interact with workers in various parts of a building, had thought perhaps a principal might use a robot to check out his school by remote control if a security alarm rang late at night. But why not a sick student who wanted to go to school? A sick student for whom, it turned out, the salesman's wife had been the dialysis nurse eight years earlier. "It's a God thing," said Rick Moeller, the principal, when he saw the coincidences that were aligning.
Rumors began to blow through Knox City. A robot was coming to a town that didn't even have a red light. A robot—the only one in the world to attend classes besides a bot that matriculated at School Number 166 in Moscow for a leukemia-stricken 12-year-old—was coming to a school with only 10 classrooms. "Everybody," recalled football coach Charles Steele, "was like, Git out of here. Yeah, right. No way."
Mr. Moeller strode in front of the astonished student body in December with the $6,000 VGo robot, the chrome-and-plastic child of a marriage between engineers from the cutting edge of videoconferencing technology and the progenitors of Roomba, the hot-selling robot vacuum cleaner, and PackBot, a military robot used for bomb disposal. "Meet the new electronic Lyndon," the principal announced. "Don't touch him when you pass him in the hall. Give him space. Don't sneak up on him—he doesn't have rear-view mirrors. Let him be like the other kids. Don't ruin it for him. This is Lyndon's only way to be a part of you."
"It's the Baty Bot!" exclaimed a junior, Ryan Ledesma, and bingo, the bot was baptized.
On Monday, Jan. 3—first day of classes after Christmas—the school superintendent did not have to pull his son out of bed. Too revved to sleep, Lyndon rose at five, dressed and beat out the minutes till dawn with a pair of drumsticks. Then he wolfed down a pair of over-easy eggs, gulped his FK506, his Cellcept, his Norvasc, his sodium bicarbonate and his Prevacid ... and clicked on the Baty Bot icon on his laptop screen. A moment later he was staring at the cramped teachers' workroom, his robot's designated resting place and charging station. He clicked his mouse at the top of the white semicircle that appeared on his screen, propelling the bot toward the hallway. Oh, boy! He was there, he was finally a high schooler! Uh-oh.... He'd never even taken his robot for a test drive. It bumped into a chair, a sink and the doorway before it got out of the staff room. Of all the fresh-meat freshmen in the history of high schools, had there ever been a geekier one?