Remembering a Brave Prom King

Corsage and CrownMost people attend a prom or two, but I’ve attended lots of proms. Like most teenage girls, as a high school junior, I was excited about the prospect of my first prom. Truthfully, it wasn’t much fun, since the boy I had a crush on didn’t ask me.

My senior prom was monumentally worse. By then, I was a patient at Toledo State Mental Hospital following an almost fatal suicide attempt. After spending a couple months in a private psychiatric ward, my insurance ran out. I was committed to the decaying institution that then housed thousands of mentally ill individuals. Before Mental Health reform, that horrible place was reminiscent of the one depicted in the classic film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Battling depression and an eating disorder, I looked more like a 17-year-old Holocaust victim than a carefree teenager. The psychiatrist granted me a weekend pass hoping that attending prom would lift my spirits. My date was a classmate who suffered from epilepsy. He must have empathized with my situation, and proudly escorted me to the prom ignoring the stares from a few overly-curious students.

Fast forward three decades to May 2002, when my life looked nothing like that struggling teen. Faith, education, and the support of a few encouraging mentors had positively changed my circumstances. I was also engaged to a wonderful man who was a school administrator, whose job necessitated that we chaperone prom. Never having had an opportunity to go to prom together, Larry and I decided to don a tuxedo and gown and make it our night, too. Larry and me

Since then, my husband and I have attended quite a few proms. The impressive decorations, twinkling lights, and colorful dresses, still take my breath away. But the prom I remember most vividly is the one when a precious senior who was dying of bone cancer was elected prom king. It was the last year that my spouse served as a middle/high school principal at a rural school in northwestern Ohio.

We had all come to love this quiet dark-haired youth whose given name was Anthony-Dillon James. Better known as A.J., he had waged a long and valiant battle against Osteosarcoma. For nine months, he was spot-free, but then the disease turned deadly. Despite his illness, A.J. was compassionate and wise beyond his years.

Somehow in a tight-knit community where folks have known each other forever, tragedy is worse, because everyone is affected. Prom wouldn’t have been prom without A.J. being there, and he knew it. Even though, it had been months since the senior had been able to attend school, he mustered all his strength and accompanied by his dedicated fiancée`, he showed up looking handsome in a white tuxedo.

As the disc jockey played pulsating music, the students danced energetically, while silently grieving the inevitable loss of the fun-loving youth who had always been part of them. When his classmates voted for their prom king, I shouldn’t have been surprised  when A.J.’s name was announced.

There was a moment when the reality of the high school student’s dismal prognosis hit me full force. It happened when a pretty senior asked if she could take a picture with him, and they  posed humorously cheek to cheek with toothy grins. What A.J. didn’t see, was that when the blonde turned away, her expression crumbled into a painful grimace. She had taken the photo as a memory of the boy she had probably known since kindergarten, realizing he would soon be gone. Like a trained actress, before she turned to face A.J. again, the golden-haired girl mustered her courage and smiled brightly. Her affection for her terminally-ill classmate wasn’t romantic love driven by adolescent hormones. Rather it was the kind of caring that country kids take for granted growing up in a close circle of friendship.

When my husband and I visited him for the last time, A.J. sensed that my heart was breaking. He smiled his dazzling smile, and said, “I’ll be okay.” Then the 18-year-old lifted his T-shirt sleeve and displayed a large tattoo of a compassionate Jesus. A visual reminder of the Bible’s promise, “I am the Resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.”

That July, the bravest prom king I’ve ever known took his last Earthly breath. Still, he lives on in the hearts of those he inspired, forever wearing a white tuxedo and a jeweled crown.

Christina Ryan Claypool is an AP & Amy award-winning journalist and inspirational speaker. Contact her through her website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com.

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Surviving Suicide: From a Mental Hospital to the Emmys

Suicide Prevention LogoSeptember is National Suicide Prevention Month. For me, suicide awareness is personal, because I have lost family members and friends, and almost died myself by suicide as a troubled teenager.

That’s why in August, while folks were freely expressing their opinions about the tragic death of actor Robin Williams, the inappropriate comments made it painfully obvious that our nation still understands little about the complex reasons behind suicide. As in Mr. Williams’ case, suicide is most frequently accompanied by a mental health issue like depression. This lack of education has been my catalyst for spending almost twenty years championing for suicide prevention.

Sharing my story publicly began while I was working as a reporter and producer at Lima’s WTLW TV 44 in the 1990s. My former supervisor, Ginger Stache, a talented journalist, who is now with Joyce Meyer Ministries, decided to create awareness about suicide by producing a documentary, and I agreed to be interviewed for the project.

To explain, as a depressed teen living in a dysfunctional environment in the early seventies, a near fatal suicide attempt landed me in an Intensive Care Unit hovering between life and death. Following that, much of my senior year of high school was spent in Toledo State Mental Hospital. After a couple other serious suicide attempts, and intermittent hospitalizations, a psychiatrist in charge of my case said I would probably die by suicide or in a mental institution.

Instead of fulfilling this dire prophecy, almost three decades ago, I found emotional and spiritual healing through faith, counseling, and living life one day at a time. Depression and shame about the stigma of mental illness gave way to the gradual understanding that my testimony offered hope to others still hurting. Like taking part in Ginger Stache’s documentary, “Before You Say Good-bye,” which aired nationwide and in Europe. She was nominated for two regional Emmys for the half-hour film.

When Ginger invited me to attend the 1999 black-tie Emmy Awards banquet to be held in an opulent ballroom of an historic Cleveland hotel, I felt like Cinderella. There was only one problem, being a single mom on my meager journalist’s budget didn’t allow for ball gowns.

When I found a dark green crepe formal at 85 percent off, I could hardly believe my good fortune. It was my size and fit perfectly. I handed over my hard-earned $20.00 bill and triumphantly left the mall with the dress. In the days that followed, I tried to be grateful, despite the fact that I didn’t care much for the nondescript gown.

A couple of my female colleagues were also attending the celebration. While they were excitedly describing their formals and accessories, I couldn’t help but envy them. They weren’t wicked stepsisters, simply women who had more disposable income.

Cinderella in VelvetOne day, another producer, Sheri Ketner noticed that I wasn’t thrilled with my dress. While I was expounding the virtues of finding such a bargain, Sheri candidly asked, “But, you don’t like it, do you?”

My countenance must have visibly fallen, as I dejectedly answered, “No.” Then I saw a determined look on my compassionate co-worker’s face. A couple days later, Sheri brought a large cardboard box into the TV station and handed it to me. Inside was a breathtaking burgundy velvet gown with a beaded neckline, and a skirt made of countless yards of translucent tulle over the velvet.

At the bottom of the box were matching velvet heels. Instantly I was saddened, since shoes rarely fit my narrow size 9 feet. However, I was amazed to see that the shoes were marked, “9N.” Sheri, smiled with satisfaction, and told me, the outfit was “borrowed,” and would have to be returned after the Emmys.

Larry & Christina Ginger Stache didn’t win a regional Emmy that night, nor did I get my prince. But a few years later on the evening of June 8, 2002, Ginger’s documentary about smuggling Bibles into China garnered the coveted prize. At the same time, I was marrying my handsome husband, who is a public school administrator in a candlelight ceremony.

Battling depression is still an occasional struggle, but if I would have died as a teenager, I wouldn’t be here to share this Cinderella tale. Tragically, every forty seconds someone dies by suicide and 800,000 people die annually according to a September 2014 Newsweek article. Before you say, “Good-bye,” please call the 24 hour National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1 (800) 273-TALK, or seek professional counseling. After all, the life you save may be your own.

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