Graduation season is filled with great moments, and here’s my favorite of the year: Dade County High School’s Class Night. Media specialist Carissa Henry just finished her 15th year at Dade, and was filled with pride as she told me the story.
Each year, seniors nominate five girls and five boys to be candidates for Mr. and Ms. Dade. A school-wide election is then held, and the winners are announced on Class Night. It’s the grand finale of the awards program, the night before graduation. As with most schools, the “popular, athletic” students often win. When this year’s winners were announced on Thursday, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” according to Ms. Henry. It was the first time that two special needs students, Tyler Seay and Kimberly Guffey, were honored as Mr. and Ms. Dade County High. Principal Josh Ingle told me, “When I saw their names a few seconds before making the announcement, I immediately had a “lump in my throat” and struggled to get it out!”
When I saw the photograph, it reminded me of my school days. It was a different time, for sure. In most schools, “special education” students were segregated from the “regular” students. Often, they were the ones who had to endure the leaky portable buildings, the makeshift classrooms in the gym, or some other rundown space. They had lunch by themselves, PE classes in some dark corner of the gym, and little or no contact with other kids. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since then. That’s why Tyler and Kimberly are familiar faces, and top vote-getters at Dade County High. I take great pleasure in informing you that they are the popular kids.
Tyler is best known for riding his tricycle throughout the school, giving awesome hugs, and flashing his big smile. When people are standing around, he insists that they shake hands and he instructs them to say, “It’s nice to see you!” Kimberly loves music and sat in on chorus classes this year. She enjoys looking at books, going to church and eating Mexican food. Both students look forward to their daily trips to the office to visit with the staff and the guidance counselors. Each received a standing ovation Thursday night.
Tyler is 22 and Kimberly is 19. (Students in the special education program can return to school until their 22nd birthday.) Although Kimberly graduated with her age group of students Friday night, she will return to the high school program next year. Tyler will be begin attending Kaleidoscope, a north Georgia program designed for independent advancement for persons with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities.
Ms. Henry said, “Dade students go out of their way to embrace and treat all of our special needs students with love and acceptance. They have grown up with these kids and they have always been a part of their lives.”
As an example, student Loran Daniels gave the special education kids their own prom. The central office gave Loran a budget and she organized the party for students from the middle school and the high school. It was called the “Snowball,” complete with music and food.
Graduating senior Hayden Johnson, himself a candidate for Mr. Dade County High, said, “Seeing Tyler and Kimberly win Mr. and Ms. Dade was a big honor for the class of 2015. Every day those two bring smiles to students’ faces and they truly deserved it. The student body knew what the award stood for, and that there was no one better to represent our class than Tyler and Kimberly.”
Ms. Henry, justifiably proud of her school, summed it up well. “I work with some amazing kids, don’t I? Things like this remind me of why I went into education in the first place,” she said.
Tyler’s mother Tia told me, “I can’t say enough about the students and Tyler’s graduating class. Without them, Tyler and Kimmie wouldn’t have had this special time.” Her Facebook post was a thing of beauty. She wrote, “I am so proud of my son and how the Dade students have always showed love, caring and kindness towards him. They include him, they encourage him and they love his hugs. We were not expecting this amazing award or the very large trophy that came with it. I feel honored and so proud to be his Mom. I just looked at him tonight and thought, I did that. I really did that. And I did that well. Congratulations Tyler you continually amaze me. I love you with my whole heart.”
Thank you Dade County High School students for ending the school year on such a positive note. You made it possible for two lovely young people to enjoy a moment in the sun, a spotlight they deserve as much as anyone else. Gone are the days when some students were denied that honor. Dade County High has shown a kind spirit and a warm embrace that we all should emulate.