Triumphant spirit: From the fire two years ago, through a dozen surgeries, to "my beautiful face," Paul Terrell confronts a life shaped by loss -- and by strengh.


January 28, 1996|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

PAUL TERRELL excels at second impressions: His smile lights deep, dark eyes; an old-fashioned courtesy greets visitors at the door; an exuberance propels his playground stunts and fuels his karate kicks.

It is almost enough to erase the first impression of an 8-year-old with an old man's hairline, of the small, scarred face that maps a ruptured world. Sometimes the boisterous third-grader falls suddenly quiet. His eyes well up with memories of just how much he has lost.

Two years ago a house fire swept away his mother and six brothers and sisters, and left him almost dead, his face, legs and hands badly burned. Paul spent eight excruciating weeks recovering at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. He has endured a dozen surgeries and knows his future holds more.

His plastic surgeon, Robert Spence, calls him a "work in progress": Over the years, his facial scarring can be made less apparent. Ultimately, however, Paul's progress will depend upon rebuilding the spirit and refining the determination that invite a second look.

With the help of his grandparents, Mildred Glover and Bill Hopkins, the little boy has already navigated some rapid and stunning transformations:

From the child who shared his belongings with six brothers and sisters to a child with no one to share the phone, VCR and TV in his spacious room.

From the child who competed for attention in a rollicking young family to the child who is always noticed first.

From the child whose handsome face brought easy popularity to one who knows the rigors of making friends from behind a mask.

At school, Paul no longer wears the clear plastic mask that protected his skin for the year it took his scars to mature enough for reconstruction. Surgery smoothed his cheeks and rebuilt his nose. But he confronts many emotional hurdles in a world that averts its eyes at disfigurement.

One bright Saturday afternoon, he is well on his way to meeting those challenges. Making his first public appearance with the Avengers Karate Club, he has been chosen to perform in the front row.

As a crowd gathers at the demonstration area inside Mondawmin Mall, Paul's grandparents stand by -- proud, nervous, grateful. They remember the child who was too weak to walk or hold a crayon. They know the misery of his early encounters with the mirror.

The karate kids take their positions. Paul's face, scored with the pink lines of recent surgery, is a frown of concentration. His body, all 60 pounds of it, is hard and ready. Eyes locked upon his instructor, Paul executes crisp jumping jacks, pummels himself in the stomach, kicks swiftly on command. The small, slender boy is a model of power and precision.

Afterward, in the confusion of parents finding children and children finding their shoes, Mildred stands waiting with open arms.

"Paul, can I have a hug?" she asks.

She holds him extra tight, as if she were hugging for all the people who are not there to see him.

"He thinks this is girlie stuff," she says, apologizing as she wipes her eyes.

Paul has always been a presence to reckon with. In a family of seven children, he was a master at capturing attention.

On Saturdays, when the entire crew gathered at Bill and Mildred's for dinner, Paul slipped into the chair next to his grandfather at the head of the table.

He resisted the orders of his older siblings, sometimes pretending he was the oldest.

He was respectful, but he didn't hesitate to say what was on his mind.

He was affectionate, a child who raced to kiss his mother in bed each morning.

And he was handsome.

"The other children were good-looking, too, but Paul was so handsome," his grandmother says. He was also the loudest of a very lively bunch. Photographs show a family who loved to mug for the camera:

Jeannette, "Poopie Doll," 11: Inquisitive, vibrant, a Girl Scout, a good student who wanted to be a teacher or a congresswoman.

Cedric, "C.J.," 11: Smart, athletic, beloved by the younger children -- especially Paul. He dreamed of becoming a heart surgeon.

Dominique, "Nikki," 8: Always cheerful despite her deafness and partial paralysis, conditions that resulted from the meningitis she had as an infant.

Quentin, "Tin-tin," 4: The most athletic, adept at turning back-flips, idolized Paul.

Micah, "Mikey," 3: Affectionate, a "mama's boy" who often asked to stay home when the children were invited out.

Samuel, "Baby," 18 months: The rare toddler who didn't hesitate to embrace strangers.

Roslynn, "Roz," 28: Mom. Outgoing, bubbly, creative, a woman who shared her thoughts on every subject and who always trusted that people meant what they said. A child who played the clarinet and enjoyed sports and drama, she grew into a mother devoted to her children, a homemaker beloved by the neighborhood kids in Edmondson Village.

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