The Magic of Dinosaurs

This is a story. About dinosaurs, of course. But also of heroes, of bravery, of friendship, and of a little boy named Avery.

I have been studying dinosaurs for 25 years, but I have been in love with them since I was five. I have seen them work their magic in all kinds of “kids,” no matter what their age. I have seen them light a fire under failing students, motivate troubled kids to stay after school to finish a project, and put other sciences into a relevant context, encouraging STEM majors.

Every now and then, I lose sight of this. The daily hassles that are part of any scientific endeavor, or any life, remove the magic and replace it with mundane frustration.

So I had to smile when I got a call from Michael. He said his friend Silas had a little boy, who was only four years old, and who LOVED dinosaurs. Michael said that Avery knew every dinosaur and just couldn’t get enough of them so he wondered if Avery and his big brother could come to our lab to see the dinosaur bones and casts we teach with. The semester was over and grades were in, so of course, I said yes. Then, Michael said that Avery has cancer — Wilms disease, stage 5. It is a “children’s cancer,” very rare and curable in many cases. But not in Avery’s.

When Avery walked into my lab with his dad, Michael, and his big brother Foster, it was impossible not to smile. Avery and Foster were beyond excited. After having just finished a semester with college students who were a little frustrated at the differences between dinosaur groups, Avery’s eyes lit up and he went right to one of our teaching casts. “Look, it’s a pachycephalosaurus!!” He knew every dinosaur we had, and recognized then not from pictures, or plastic figures, but from their 3-D bony casts. To be honest, Avery knows his dinosaurs better than me!

Avery walks a little stiff legged — a bit like Timmy in Jurassic Park (after Timmy was blasted off the electric fence). Silas, his dad, said that in February Avery couldn’t walk at all, because a tumor had invaded his spine. But, he has recovered enough to run toward his dinosaurs. After seeing all he could, he sat down with me to show me his dinosaur book. Avery can’t read yet, but he knew every word, and every name.

After they finished the visit to our lab, I sent them down to the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. I wish I could have been there too, because the awe on his face is unmistakable. This is the magic of dinosaurs!

And this, this is why we do what we do. For the science, yes. For understanding our planet, where we came from, so we can know better where we are going, yes. But mostly…it is for this look. It is for the kids that we do what we do.

After Avery’s visit, he took a turn for the worse, and ended up back in the hospital. But, he had his dinosaurs for company. And to my future college students, I say, look at his shirt! If Avery can figure out the phylogenetic tree of dinosaurs, so can you!

I hate cancer. In all its forms. But I REALLY hate this one. If dinosaurs could shed light on this horrible disease, it would be worth it all. That is one of my dreams.

It was my privilege and honor to share these big beasts with this one brave little boy. Avery was a gift to me. And when I get discouraged in the future, I will remember this little hero, who never gave up, who always smiled, and whose enthusiasm for what I get to do every day makes it a joy. Avery, thank you for bringing back the magic , and the joy of dinosaurs to MY life. You will be with me in the field this summer, as we explore the badlands for the “Averysaurus” just around the next bluff.

Ride well Avery. Ride well.


P.S. Photographs courtesy of Michael Williams, and this incredible sketch was drawn for Avery by Mark Hallet, Paleoartist Extraordinaire.