When a new set of students got to audition for a play at Tyrone Middle, something special happened
By KELLY RYAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2000
ST. PETERSBURG -- "Annie, do you know how to waltz?"
Jessica Stribling's eyes, deep and blue, widened at the teacher's question. She had hokey-pokied with her mom. But she had never waltzed or even danced with a boy her age.
Tyrone Middle School teacher Linda Clark summoned Demetrius Simpkins Jr. to the stage, where 30 students were rehearsing for the musical Annie. Jessica plays the title character, a bubbly orphan. Demetrius plays the billionaire who wants to rescue her.
"You're going to waltz with Annie," Clark directed.
The cast watched the pair swirl. Jessica's face flushed, and the 13-year-old's full, cherry-red lips curled into a grin.
In the Tampa Bay area, about 81,000 students are considered "exceptional," a broad term that describes students with a wide variety of special needs. About 20,000 are gifted; the other 61,000 are disabled.
From her seat in a motorized scooter that serves as her legs, Mrs. Clark worked for two months to produce Annie with a blend of exceptional and mainstream students from her Pinellas County school.
Clark watched "regular" middle school students -- teenagers who can be judgmental and cruel -- grab hands with disabled students to help them on stage or to the bathroom. She saw a gentle eighth-grader console a student with cerebral palsy who was kicking and screaming and scaring everyone else.
She witnessed Jessica's transformation.
The effort, a first for Mrs. Clark, the students and the school, had been at once exhausting and exhilarating, scary and joyful. More than 150 people crowded the school gymnasium Friday night to see the result.
"What I have seen this year has verged on a miracle," Mrs. Clark said. "It's unfortunate every student doesn't get to experience this."
For a long time, students with disabilities were segregated in their own school society with different teachers, materials and expectations.
But in the past two decades, school districts have moved to include more disabled students in mainstream classrooms. In Pinellas, 62 percent of the county's 22,000 disabled students spend some time every day learning alongside so-called "regular" kids.
In the 14 years Mrs. Clark has taught music at Tyrone Middle, disabled students have sung in the choir but never taken leading roles in the school's theater productions.
Until one day in October when Jessica decided she wanted to be in the play. And she wanted to be the star.
A rare genetic condition called Williams Syndrome means Jessica doesn't learn at the same pace as her peers. Shy and polite, Jessica seldom speaks in class unless asked a question, and the answers are often halting yeses or nos.
Noise rattles her. Sometimes she gets lost walking to her own bedroom. Her mom helps her dress in two-piece cotton outfits with no buttons or zippers, which her fingers can't work.
So why would she want to be Annie?
"You're acting. You're not yourself," Jessica explained. "You're someone different."
Her biggest fans -- her mom, her teacher, her full-time aide -- weren't sure trying out for Annie was a swell idea. Too much pressure. Too much stimulation. Too much.
At the audition, Jessica's voice was sweet and strong. She knew all the lines. She was loud and angry when she was supposed to be, then sniffling and sad.
She was better than the other girls, even the ones that teachers call regular.
When Jessica finished her audition, the other hopefuls -- between 11 and 14 years old -- burst into applause. Mrs. Clark was so surprised she cried.
As an actress, Jessica had found her voice.
Mrs. Clark asked the 60 students in the cast and chorus to hand in forms describing their "exceptionalities." She included the biographies in the program.
Jessica has Williams Syndrome, which strikes just 1 in 20,000. So does Kate McFarlin, a sixth-grader who sings a solo.
Justin Beauchesne, a sixth-grader who had his hands and part of a foot amputated as a toddler, will play the evil Rooster Hannigan.
There are students with cerebral palsy, attention deficit disorder, spina bifida, dyslexia, bone diseases, severe asthma, water on the brain, heart disease, eye disorders and various learning disabilities.
Some students from the mainstream pool wrote that they were exceptional because they like to sing or act or play the flute.
Roderick Richardson, a sixth-grader who plays the butler, says he gets along well with others.
Kelly Courtney, an eighth-grader playing a secretary, wrote that she was exceptional because she is a cheerleader.
Annie, set in New York City during the Great Depression, is about a young orphan who spends a holiday with the powerful Oliver Warbucks and enlists his help finding her long-lost parents. It is a story of finding companionship in unexpected places.
As one of the first rehearsals was about to begin in early March, Jessica was sitting alone on the risers. Silent, she stared past the other students piling into the room.
Around her, students were singing. Hugging each other. Pulling hair into ponytails. Talking about their nails. Eating cookies. Squealing.
Rehearsal began in the orphanage where six girls bemoaned the mean Miss Hannigan, who runs the place and makes them clean, rise before dawn and eat cold mush.
One girl was on her knees, pretending to scrub the floor. Jessica's job was to sweep, but she didn't know how to hold a broom.
Demetrius, without being asked, rushed to her side. He wrapped her hands around the wooden handle. Guiding her, he showed her how to slide the bristles along the floor.
Jessica nervously bit her lip. Her hands shook.
"It's the hard knock life for us! It's the hard knock life for us! 'Stead a treated, we get tricked! 'Stead a kisses we get kicked!"
The other girls drowned out Jessica, her mouth barely moving and her voice so tiny a microphone wouldn't pick it up.
Mrs. Clark chanted, "Big! Big!" Jessica obliged a moment, filling the room with her voice, right on pitch. The other cast members applauded.
Sally Morse knew Jessica was special when she was born. Morse didn't have a name for that quality until her first-born turned 6.
No one else in Jessica's family had it. But if she decides to have kids one day, she has a 50-50 chance of passing it on.
Jessica is in sixth-grade but she reads at a fourth-grade level. Just six months ago, she learned how to write her name in loopy, overlapping capital letters. She's easily distracted.
Doctors monitor heart problems. The tendons in Jessica's legs are 3 inches too short so she walks on tip-toes, her feet forming a V. Her hearing is so sensitive that noises from running water to a hair dryer to her stepfather's power boat make her feel "a little bit sad and a little bit angry."
With the problems come inexplicable gifts.
Jessica is friendly and kind and innocent. A picture of her granddaddy Bill hangs in the hallway leading to her bedroom in her Snell Isle home, and she kisses it every time she walks past. He died when she was 3.
Jessica's long-term memory is astonishing. She rattles off lessons from the television news ("Too many Americans are obese.") or phrases she has overheard in conversation. ("My hair grows like a weed.")
Then there's a characteristic that no one can explain, that every person with Williams Syndrome shares. That one thing that stirs passion, that doesn't frustrate like directions and math and buttons.
Jessica loves it all -- country, gospel, pop, rock. She sings television jingles. Listening to Silent Night always makes her cry.
Music, she explains "soothes the soul."
By mid-March, the play was six weeks away, but Mrs. Clark was already joking -- sort of -- that the cast wouldn't get it together in time.
Like other rehearsals, some of the key players weren't there. They had doctor's appointments, church, family commitments. Jessica never misses practice or any of her lines.
Justin, Mrs. Clark explained, had been late because he was being fitted for a new leg brace.
Her nose wrinkled, Kelly stared at Justin's legs.
"You're getting new ones?" she asked.
Justin, a gregarious, fidgety boy who often earns Mrs. Clark's glare for distracting the cast, only nodded. He didn't want to talk about it.
Jessica was singing, "Will somebody pinch me please?" She waited. And waited. And waited.
"Will somebody do it, PLEASE?" Jessica sang, loud and firm. This time, her face was just inches from her offending colleague, the one so busy talking to a friend she had missed her cue.
Mrs. Clark was pleased.
"You're singing louder than they are today," she said.
Then it was time for Justin to dance.
Between two girls towering over him, Justin sang and twisted his hips and kicked his legs. With what's left of his arms, he took off his hat, tipped it and returned it to his head. As the music ended, Darnisha Mincey and Lina Bracht leaned down and rested their arms on Justin's 4-foot frame.
Darnisha complained about having to lean down so far.
"There's nothing in the script that says he has to be taller," Mrs. Clark said.
"Or that Annie has to have red hair," Kelly said.
"Or," Roderick added, "that Annie has to be a girl."
Mrs. Clark calls it "the safe room."
Her classroom has green nubby carpeting, and a wall full of trombones, french horns and saxophones. She presides atop a wheelchair ramp.
She graduated from Dixie Hollins High School and went off to Tennessee for college. She returned to Pinellas County, where she has been a teacher for 24 years.
She was already teaching music at Tyrone Middle School 14 years ago when her legs started tingling. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. For six years, she has been in the scooter.
On the first day of school, she tells all her students that MS is a degenerative disease that attacks the nervous system. She says she will never walk again.
Her classroom is one of give and take. Before she could wheel into her van on her scooter, several students volunteered to get to school early and stay late to lift her in and out. They confide in her their teenage crushes and heartbreaks; she listens.
She doesn't care about her students' IQs or hangups. Her expectations are the same for everyone: Show respect, be kind, learn from each other and work hard. And you turkeys, she would say, have some fun.
Secrets are the only things that aren't safe in Mrs. Clark's classroom.
She told her students about Jessica and Williams Syndrome. She encourages them to ask questions. She knows some students don't like talking about their disabilities, or even using that word, but she thinks that's silly.
"I'm an example for the kids they can face anything," said Clark, 46. "Call it what you want. I'm in this chair. I won't walk again. I have to accept that and so do you."
Another day in March, the cast started with Scene 4, when Oliver Warbucks tells Annie he wants to adopt her. He has gotten her a heart-shaped locket to replace the broken one she faithfully wears around her neck.
The first time Jessica and Demetrius tried the scene, it was flat.
"Remember when you auditioned you got really angry?" Mrs. Clark asked.
Jessica tried again.
"No, I don't want a new one," she shouted, her voice trembling. She stomped backward, away from Demetrius. She sniffled and covered her face with her hands.
"Keep crying, Annie," Mrs. Clark said. "You're doing a good job."
Demetrius rubbed Jessica's shoulder, trying to comfort her. Kelly stroked her hair.
The routine is always the same.
As soon as Jessica's mom escorts her to Karen Hall's classroom for sixth-graders with learning disabilities, Jessica and her aide walk to the bathroom.
On this cloudless April Monday, Julia Keadle asked Jessica about her weekend. Then Jessica made a wrong turn.
"Where are you going, Jessica?" Keadle asked.
Jessica turned around, barely glancing at other students who shouted and laughed and wove around her.
In the portable classroom, Jessica sits in the back row next to Keadle. For every assignment, Keadle tries to pull answers out Jessica. She writes what Jessica tells her.
While the rest of the class did a math lesson, Keadle and Jessica did their own. They finished and moved on to the next chapter of Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus. Jessica sounded out each word.
And then in walked a student visiting Mrs. Hall. Jessica brightened, raised her hand in a wave and shouted, "Hello!"
"That never would have happened before," Keadle said.
After reading, Jessica and Keadle walked together to a nearby tree where they eat lunch together every day. The cafeteria is too noisy.
One day in early April, a student held open the door to the gym. Mrs. Clark whizzed in. Pointing to crinkle-cut french fry earrings dangling to her shoulders, she declared, "I'm fried."
The gym isn't ideal for a play -- no lights for effects, lots of echoes and lots of distractions. Like the pingpong table backstage, which Mrs. Clark constantly scolded the cast to ignore.
"Jessica has a tendency to lose focus," Mrs. Clark reminded them. "It would help me if you would sit down."
Kelly helped Jessica strap on her microphone and adjusted the mouthpiece. Absent-mindedly, she played with Jessica's hair.
Mrs. Clark told the students to move closer to the front of the stage and look straight ahead so their backsides don't face the audience. Stop rocking. Look into the audience and not at the floor.
They are practicing the last scene, and the stage is full of actors: orphans, President Roosevelt, Daddy Warbucks, his secretary and Annie. Roderick, playing the butler, walked across the stage.
"Mrs. and Mr. Mudge, sir," he announced.
He had made the same mistake so many times, announcing the woman first, that Mrs. Clark was ready to let it go. Not Jessica, who took on the part of director.
"Mr. and Mrs. Mudge," she said, enunciating the "Mr." She sighed.
Mrs. Hall, Jessica's teacher, has witnessed such exchanges. She has seen that Jessica knew everyone's lines, not just her own.
Yet, in class, Jessica doesn't raise her hand. Jessica rarely makes eye contact with her peers and usually looks to her mom and Keadle for reassurance.
"What a difference," Hall said. "In class, although she knows the information, she's not as free to express it. In the play, she's right there correcting kids who don't know their lines."
On an April afternoon, Jessica's mom stopped by to drop off the Annie costume -- a long red dress with a white collar. It had been altered, and Jessica brought it home to try on. It fit.
Jessica was sitting cross-legged on the floor. Three girls sat with her. As Jessica munched chocolate chip Teddy Grahams, the girls giggled.
Jessica spends all her free time with her mom, stepfather and younger brother, watching Christian television, visiting Disney World, grilling cheeseburgers. She didn't pal around with her classmates, in school or out.
"All of a sudden," Morse said, "everyone was interested in Jessica and wanted to know her."
Spring Break had interrupted two months of play practice. The cast assembled Wednesday, 48 hours before show time, for a dress rehearsal.
At least that's what it was supposed to be. Some forgot their costumes.
The microphones were either turned off or let out squeals. Props weren't in the right place. The chorus, at times, forgot to sing and didn't know the dances. Half the chorus wasn't even there.
Mrs. Clark kept making changes. The actors shared popcorn and did math homework and argued with the technicians backstage. The shushed each other when the director shouted.
"There is still too much talk backstage, and if I have to come over there, you won't be in it anymore," Mrs. Clark growled.
Jessica, even as she chided an orphan for singing the wrong part, was so nervous she forgot a couple of her own lines. Jessica's aide said she would be backstage Friday to help her change costumes and calm the performance jitters.
Even so, Jessica's mom was starting to worry that the commotion would make Jessica freeze.
"Dress rehearsals are supposed to go bad," Kelly said.
All Mrs. Clark could say was: "Ugh."
Ten minutes before show time, they sat shoulder to shoulder, all 60 of them, on benches outside the gym. They held hands, bowed their heads and prayed. Mrs. Clark told them to sing louder and dance bigger than they ever had. She told them she was proud.
She wheeled into the gym and took the stage.
"If these students are our future, then we have nothing to fear," Mrs. Clark told the audience, her voice crackling.
And the show began.
Jessica, her hair dyed auburn for her debut, sang louder than she had before. The audience applauded wildly when Justin danced. For the whole show, the crowd whistled and laughed and gasped at just the right times.
"You're doing wonderful," Mrs. Clark told Jessica, wrapping her arm around Jessica's waist. "You're a star."
Some microphones crackled and some didn't work at all. Some lines were skipped. Some members of the chorus fell. So the cast improvised -- sharing microphones, ignoring missed cues and picking each other up.
When it was all over, the audience gave them a standing ovation. The actors accepted roses and posed for pictures. Jessica beamed.
She smiled and said "thank you" over and over as people congratulated her. "Your voice was magical," she heard. Her eyes twinkling and tearing, she walked to Mrs. Clark and gave her a hug.
Other actors gathered their things to go home.
Jessica stayed there, on stage, surrounded by fans, signing autographs.