Thursday, April 19, 2007
By GRACIE BONDS STAPLES
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 04/18/07
Melanie Barrett was a little girl, no more than 5 years old, when she first dreamt of being crowned prom queen.
It was an unlikely dream for a girl like Melanie, but anything can happen when you believe.
"I'm the queen," she often announced to her parents while growing up. "I'm the queen."
As she aged, her pronouncements intensified until finally last year Melanie was a junior at Pierce County High School and prom queen was within her reach. She got gussied up and went to the prom that year with her father on her arm and her dream neatly tucked in her heart. She would be queen.
But when the votes were tallied that night, Melanie Barrett hadn't even been nominated. She was crushed.
A classmate at Pierce tried her best to get Melanie a place in the homecoming parade, a sort of consolation prize, but even that didn't happen. There just wasn't enough time to get a convertible.
Carol Kodobocz, Melanie's mother, put her hopes on the senior year prom. Maybe then the odds would be different.
For most of her life, Melanie had managed to defy the odds stacked against her. Doctors diagnosed her with Down syndrome the day she was born at South Fulton Hospital in Atlanta; and when she was just 2, they discovered she had leukemia.
"They told us she wouldn't live through the weekend," Kodobocz said.
They forgot to tell Melanie that, of course, and so after two years of chemotherapy, she was cancer-free and ready to take on the world.
Three years ago, their family moved from McDonough on the south side of Atlanta to Blackshear in the southeastern corner of Georgia, thrusting Melanie into a whole new world, but she made friends quickly, especially in her home economics classes.
Each year, the seniors would leave Melanie behind, but the sweet girl with the sky-blue eyes had stolen their hearts. During breaks from college, they always found a moment to stop by to see Melanie. In between, they called or wrote to her on MySpace.
In all that time, Melanie held on to her dream. At 18, she was a senior, and now it was her turn. She would be the Pierce County High School Prom Queen.
This time, though, she couldn't have her father go with her. She wanted a "real date." Will you go with me? she asked Stephen Wall.
Peggy and Bill Wall adopted Stephen when he was only 2 days old. At 6 months old, doctors diagnosed him with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder.
"I never imagined we'd be facing such terrible news," said Peggy Wall.
That afternoon, she and Stephen's father took a walk to discuss the diagnosis and their little boy's future. It was then, she said, that they released all their dreams for a "normal" life. Stephen would never drive. He would never go to college. He would never date.
He needed a wheelchair to navigate the world, but Stephen quickly claimed his place. He made friends just as quickly, becoming a favorite son of Pierce County High.
Students loved him as much as they loved Melanie. He loves driving golf carts and music, especially the Gaither Vocal Band.
Yes, the 18-year-old told Melanie. He'd be delighted to attend the prom with her.
Meanwhile, a group of students began working behind the scenes to make Melanie's dream come true.
Maybe, if her parents were willing to provide the head gear, Melanie and Stephen could be crowned the principal's king and queen, a special honor. Everyone thought it was a lovely idea.
On March 24, the night of the senior prom, Melanie and Stephen arrived at school along with a 100 or so other classmates dressed to the nines. Stephen in his black tux, Melanie in a sky-blue gown that matched her eyes.
It was a high moment in their lives. Too often, students with disabilities have to stay at home on prom night. Seldom does an entire school embrace them, but Pierce County High was different.
Sometime around 10 that night, the festivities kicked in high gear. Students lined up for the annual senior walk, when each couple has their moment in the spotlight.
Close to midnight, the music stopped. It was time to announce the 2007 court. Out of the eight students, four boys and four girls, only two of them would be king and queen.
A hush fell over the school gym. The announcer named the princes and princesses first and moved quickly to the king and queen.
Carol Kodobocz was sure he'd forgotten Melanie and Stephen.
Then she heard him call Melanie's name. The school gym filled with applause.
Noticing the confusion on Kodobocz's face, Melanie's teacher assured Carol that Melanie had really won. They voted her queen!
The announcer called Stephen's name next.
Did they vote for him, too? Kodobocz asked.
For as long as she could remember, she'd craved acceptance for her little girl, for all special needs kids. Now Kodobocz had it in abundance.
Melanie Barrett and Stephen Wall were indeed the Pierce County High School Prom Queen and King. Out of 180 seniors, only seven had not voted in their favor.
For the first time that night, Stephen got out of his wheelchair and, on his knees, danced with Melanie.
At breakfast the next morning, Melanie wore the crown and the sash announcing her victory. Instead of cold cereal, she demanded bacon and eggs, and when her father suggested she clean the kitchen, she balked.
"Excuse me," she said, "Queen here."