In a poster he created for a literacy class assignment, Mark Barniville shared all about himself, just like the teacher wanted. It was one of those get-to-know-you types of activities for the beginning of the year.

He drew a bike, because he liked riding bikes. He advertised his love for steak and pizza, and wrote that he wanted to be a chef someday. He drew music notes floating to show he enjoyed playing in band, a book to illustrate his love of reading, and the names of his brothers and family.

At the bottom of the poster, under the bubble letters spelling out MARK, he drew a yellow ribbon.

Winding through the letters, he drew a road carrying a message.

“My life goes straight. Then it’s full of ups and downs but sooner or later, it’s back to normal,” he wrote. Some of his classmates did the bare minimum, just coloring in their names, but Mark put a lot of work into the poster and included that statement, which made his teacher think.

“It was that word ‘normal’ that got me,” said Bev Bussey, his eighth-grade teacher at Orchard Mesa Middle School in Grand Junction, Colorado.

She assumed the yellow ribbon was in honor of a grandma, an aunt, or uncle who had undergone cancer treatment. After all, it seemed like everyone knew someone with cancer at one time or another.

“It really didn’t occur to me,” she said, later.

Bussey quickly learned that Mark was a voracious reader and was reading more difficult books than most of his 13-year-old peers. He got along with everyone, didn’t complain, and seemed hungry for knowledge. He was glad to be there, something she wasn’t accustomed to encountering during her 22 years of teaching at Orchard Mesa Middle School. He was small for his age, a “little pixie,” Bussey called him, with a sense of humor evident in the way that he wore a shirt with a camel on it every Wednesday to celebrate hump day.

“Push him, Miss Smith. Because he doesn’t want special treatment. He needs a challenge.”

About a month into school, Mark stopped coming. He was absent a lot. Bussey didn’t know where her eager student had gone.

A few weeks later, she found out. Mark had cancer and a grim prognosis with only weeks to live. He hadn’t wanted anyone to know, and he had refused treatment in June, when it was clear that the disease had returned a third time. He had battled Ewing’s Sarcoma twice and didn’t want to go through it again. He’d been fighting since he was 9 years old, when it was found on his L3 vertebrae after they thought it was just a pulled muscle. He just wanted to enjoy life and be normal.

His literacy teacher the previous year, Tanya Smith, knew Mark was in remission, but it was only because his father told her at parent-teacher conferences the first year he attended the school. She asked how to help at the time and his father said, “Push him, Miss Smith. Because he doesn’t want special treatment. He needs a challenge.”

Mark’s father, Mark Barniville II, nodded his head and sniffled as Smith recounted that story in tribute to his son, at a ceremony in the school courtyard dedicating a memorial to Mark.

Though some days Smith could tell Mark wasn’t feeling up to participating and had dark rings under his eyes, he still wanted to be there at school, doing what he loved.

She didn’t know the cancer had returned over the summer. No one did, really.

That’s because Mark was the kind of kid who didn’t complain and was grateful for what he had.

Even when the family was living down by the river, without a home, Mark accepted the challenge of completing a community service project for school, picking up trash, his dad said. He was happy to be able to do the work, he said, and to be enjoying his life away from a hospital room.

“He was grateful because that’s all he had,” his father said.

Most of the school community didn’t know about Mark’s hardships because he didn’t let them wear him down. He wasn’t bitter, he wasn’t angry.

“He had a lot of suffering in his life, but he never focused on that,” said Principal Cheryl Vana. She called him “the kindest, most gentle soul that ever walked these sidewalks.”

Mark had a rough life, and not just because of being sick. His dad brought him back to the Grand Valley after his second fight with cancer, back to where he grew up and his family lives. They had been living in Kentucky, where the family owned a taxi business and the family received a lot of support from the community that came out of the woodwork after Mark’s diagnosis. But things fell apart with Mark’s parents when they came here, without steady work or a place to live, his dad said. Then, the cancer returned. He went to school as long as he could, until he couldn’t. He died on October 1, 2016 with his family where they were staying, at the Rio Rancho Motel.

Through all of it, Mark never asked for a Make-a-Wish trip, no Disneyland or meeting a famous athlete or celebrity.

“His Disneyland was to sit in a classroom,” Smith said.

He just wanted to read books, learn, and be like the other kids. He didn’t care about cellphones or designer clothes or the drama of who likes who in middle school, he just wanted to be normal.

“He taught me that normal is beautiful,” Bussey said before she invited Mark’s father to unveil the memorial after school as staffers, a few students and members of the Orchard Mesa Lions Club, which paid for the memorial, observed.

As soon as he saw the carved books with Mark’s smiling face beaming from the front of the memorial, tears ran down his face and he crouched down, overcome with emotions.

“His Disneyland was to sit in a classroom.”

A small treasure chest sat atop the memorial, just like the one Mark filled with found objects, the one that was at his funeral.

“It blows me away,” his father said, overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from the staff at the school. Before he left, he bent over to kiss Mark’s smiling face on the memorial, and said, “See you later.”

The way this boy handled his too-short life was an incredible example to not only his peers, but also adults, his teachers said. In less than two years on the campus, he made an impact, though he wasn’t a sports star or the most popular kid, and just getting to school some days was hard.

His absence this year is palpable. Some of his teachers miss him so much they can still feel him there at school, late at night when they’re grading papers or on weekends when the halls only have empty echoes. It just doesn’t seem normal without him, Smith said. “He was a quiet voice, but he was heard.”

Orchard Mesa Lions commissioned the memorial for Mark, showcasing his favorite books, which he would read during lunch under a tree.