No Labels, Please
Story and Photographs by Robin Nelson
Milton, GA – Meggy Kay felt like a princess. Her best friend and high school classmate Alanna Christian was giddy with excitement. The girls watched from Alanna’s bedroom window as their tuxedo-clad ‘Prince Charmings’ approached the house with corsages in hand. It was prom night. This would be a most special occasion — and not just for the students.
“It’s a rite of passage as the kids make that transition into being adults. For parents of children with challenges and developmental disabilities, it’s a milestone as well,” admits Meggy’s dad, Kenny.
Meggy and Alanna are both seniors at Milton High School. They’re both in the special education class because of intellectual challenges that eventually become apparent, but that doesn’t stop them from having the same dreams and goals as their fellow students in the regular classrooms.
“Meggy is who she is,” explains Kenny. “As for her disability, it’s a little of this, a little of that. Doctors have mentioned autism. There’s no physiological reason for her intellectual disability. We don’t have a label for it. I think it’s better that way because Meggy is not defined by a disability. She’s more like the other girls than she is different.”
Meshiel Christian, Alanna’s mom, nods her head in agreement. Meggy and Alanna have been best friends since they met in a self-contained sixth grade special education classroom. Alanna, 20, was diagnosed with a developmental delay and mild cerebral palsy. She experiences autism to a slight degree and at times seems quite shy.
“Alanna knew all about what to expect for the prom. She knew about getting her nails done, the dress, a limousine, and dinner reservations, all of it. Alanna and Meggy are just like the other girls in so many ways,” Meshiel said.
“I had a moment when tears came to my eyes when I saw her all dressed up, waiting expectantly for her date to come calling,” recalled Meggy’s mom, Mindy.
“I was a granny-knot of emotions. I said, ‘where’s my little girl?’ but she’s growing up. For parents raising special needs children — and especially girls — it was a ‘wow’ moment. I was so happy for her because she had the opportunity to go to the prom with her friend Jimmy and just be like the other students. These kids have all been a part of each other’s lives. They were all in there together enjoying a special night. Nobody’s making a fuss because these students have a developmental challenge.”
Jimmy Rice, 18, experiences autism. He has one more year in the school’s special education program.
“My son has never mentioned that he feels different from other students,” says his dad, Charlie. “He has lots of friends in the school. They might see him in the hallway looking confused once in a while and they’ll ask, ‘Whatcha need, Jimmy?’ They’ll get him pointed in the right direction. They don’t treat him like a child. They include Jimmy in activities because he’s their friend, not because it’s ‘poor Jimmy.’ Nobody’s feeling sorry for him. And that’s the way it ought to be. Jimmy is just so happy-go-lucky and he has friends who like him for who he is.”
“Jimmy had mentioned the prom a few months ago, but he didn’t have a date. And then Meggy asked him to go with her. He was so excited to be going,” his mom Cindy recalled.
“His tuxedo was actually his high school band uniform. He’s a percussionist in the band, and he loves it,” Charlie said. “He chose a different cummerbund and shirt, and then Jimmy and his mom sat down at the computer to order Meggy’s corsage online. He took the initiative.”
Alanna met her date Elijah two years ago at an area dance organized for students with disabilities. Elijah is 16 years old and a sophomore in another school. Though he experiences Asperger’s syndrome that affects his ability to socialize and communicate with others, his parents only told him of his diagnosis a year ago.
“Beyond the name, nothing has changed,” his dad, Terry Walker explained to Elijah. “I said, ‘Son, you think different from other kids, but that’s all.’ Sometimes if parents make too much of a disability the children will see themselves as different, maybe use it as an excuse or a crutch.”
For Meggy, Alanna and their moms, Prom Day was complete with manicures and pedicures, gowns, high heels, mixed with the aroma of hairspray and perfume.
Meshiel Christian styled the girls’ hair in her home-based salon. Alanna soaked up the attention, the hair and the makeup like a sponge. “She wants to learn to do hair when she’s done with school,” Meshiel said
Not so much for Meggy, though.
“Mom said I had to wear makeup. I did my own lipstick,” Meggy said proudly. “Except I missed a spot.”
Mindy did her best to fix it. “Meggy’s not a real girly-girl, she doesn’t like makeup much. She’s more into baggy short and t-shirts. But I try,” she said as she smoothed a smudge of eye shadow Meggy had also applied.
“I had to wear my heels around the house to practice walking,” Meggy said as she struggled with her new shoes. “I had to wear them to the dinner table. And while washing dishes.”
Alanna was completely at ease in her gown and silver sandals. Her neighborhood girlfriends stopped by her house to see Alanna and Meggy dressed up. They gushed as how nice the girls looked. Alanna and Meggy both beamed. Cameras flashed. Then it was time for their grand entrance down the stairs.
Jimmy and Elijah stood proud at the front door, their dates’ corsages in hand. Terry straightened his son’s tie and reminded him of proper etiquette. “How to be a proper gentleman has become a lost art. But it’s not lost on him. In my mind, I’m so proud of him because he’s a sophomore going to the prom with a senior,” he said.
“Society puts it in your head that persons with disabilities need to be treated different. Keep them separated from the others to keep them safe. You can hear it when people talk to someone with a disability and they talk down to them as if they were a small child. And then they talk louder and slower to them. We shouldn’t do that, but people often do,” he observed.
“Jimmy looks so nice in that tux,” Meggy said. “When I came down the stairs I didn’t recognize him. Usually he wears t-shirt and jeans but tonight he looks like a man!” she whispered to her mom.
The time was growing near for the couples’ departure. The ‘limo’ was waiting. There were dinner reservations before the prom. The young women and their dates stood outside Alanna’s home and posed as a friends, parents, neighbors — even a former teacher — gathered with cameras for what seemed like hundreds of snapshots. It was a scene undoubtedly replicated at thousands of homes across the country on prom night.
Then it was off to an evening without parents, in a massive hall that had been magically transformed into a wonderland of laser lights, glitter balls, streamers and elaborate decorations that prom committee members spent weeks making after school. It was a night of loud music with hundreds of their classmates dancing, laughing and mingling during a tender time somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, spiced with formal gowns, tuxedos and sparkly shoes – and a slow dance or two. Meggy, Alanna, Jimmy and Elijah were right in the middle of it. Prom night would be a precious memory for all of them. No labels needed.