March 28, 2015

The Abilities of Jessica Zeller

As the husband of a woman that has close ties to the Miss Texas Scholarship Foundation Pageant, I've had the privilege of meeting and becoming friends with some very smart, beautiful and inspirational young ladies over the years. Each year there are literally hundreds competing in local pageant events all over the State of Texas, with the dream of "taking home the crown" in the Miss Texas event that is held later on in the year. Winners of this event not only represent The State of Texas at the annual Miss America event, they also win thousands of dollars that can pay for a college education.
These young ladies all come from very diverse backgrounds. They are the daughters of ranchers, teachers, athletes, doctors, lawyers, law enforcement professionals or any of a whole host of other careers. Their drive, vision and ambition are second to none. Although they are all vivacious, outgoing and beautiful, from time to time, one usually crosses your path that just displays a determination that few of us will ever know or will ever realize and she changes your life forever. One such young lady crossed my path recently.
A few weeks ago, my granddaughter competed in one of the local scholarship pageants that was being held in Waco, Texas. The local events are where it's determined who will go on to compete in the annual Miss Texas Scholarship Foundation Pageant. And if they are fortunate enough to win the coveted Miss Texas event or the Miss Texas Outstanding Teen event, they automatically qualify for the granddaddy pageant event of the year, the Miss America Scholarship Pageant.
As my family and I were enjoying breakfast early on that Saturday morning, the hotel restaurant was abuzz with contestants milling around in their interview outfits making new friends, renewing old acquaintances or just spending time making small talk with their families. I noticed a young lady, sitting just a few feet away, speaking with two people that were obviously her family. She had deep, dark eyes that were framed with a pair of glasses in the latest fashion. Her hair was jet black and styled fashionably,  revealing the olive complexion of her face. Just like all of the other young ladies in the room, this young lady was regal, happy and seemed very outgoing. She was also one of the most beautiful young ladies I had ever seen. Her dignity, poise, humbleness, confidence and the way she handled herself in this room filled with the other distinguished young ladies was impressive.
We were finished with our meal and were sitting at our table, taking in the activity in the room when the young lady stood up to leave. I immediately noticed something was amiss. As she made her way out of the room, I couldn't help but notice she had difficulty walking. Later on in the evening and after the show was over, I found out from her dad that she lives with Cerebral Palsy.

From that moment I could not get her out of my mind. My thoughts about her were sporadic and impulsive. I was elated at her obvious drive but simultaneously I wondered about her ability to perform. But mostly, I was sad that such an amazing young lady in the twilight of her youth had to go through each day navigating life with such a hindrance.  It didn't matter to me, I decided at that moment I was rooting for this young lady. If she could do well, it would send a clear message to people, young and old alike, that you could live with physical difficulties and that life is not over, not over by a long shot. Would it be harder? Sure, but don't we all live with our own difficulties, whether physical, psychological or otherwise. And it seems to be harnessed around our neck and make our lives just a bit more difficult too.

As we arrived at the venue we made sure we were close to the front. I wanted to be front and center for my granddaughter, who was competing in the Teen Division of the show and of course for my new-found hero in the Miss Division. At this point, I didn't even know her name. As the show began, each contestant made their way to the front of the stage and introduced themselves. The young lady I had been waiting for made her way to the microphone and proudly exclaimed "Hello, my name is Jessica Zeller"! I was thrilled at her introduction. She sounded very happy and confident.
The show began and continued on for several hours over the course of the evening. In the competition each contestant was required to answer an on-stage question, model a swimsuit and an evening gown and perform a talent. As each segment of the competition was completed, my pride and profound respect for Jessica began to build. Finally it was her turn to perform her talent. She would be singing a selection called "The Prayer". If you know this song, you know the raw emotion it can reign all over you.
Her voice was pure, clear and bright. The emotion she evoked into every note she sang, coupled with her story, became overwhelming to me. Tears came to my eyes as she continued to sing. For those few minutes, the audience was hers. She had us by the soul and for that moment she was an entertainer, singing to her fans and everything was perfect in her world.  Her performance, coupled with the emotions that had been building within me all through the day for this amazing young lady, had my heart flying and tears of joy for her in my eyes. I began to wonder how well she had done. Would it be enough to be considered for the coveted prize? Her entire performance over the course of the evening was emotional. It pulled you in. It grabbed you by the heart and wouldn't let go.  

I was hoping I wasn't the only one in the auditorium that felt that way and I soon found out I wasn't. As she sang the final note, a roar from the crowd rose quickly and a standing ovation ensued. It wasn't because she was "different", they stood because she was good, really good. I was smiling, I was blubbering like a child and I was dealing with emotions I hadn't felt since I was in a similar situation years earlier with a young gentlemen by the name of Colby Bannister that lives with Down Syndrome. I could not take my mind off of Jessica Zeller. I've always been an advocate for the "underdog" and I made a solemn vow to myself right then and there, I was going to meet this dynamic young lady. 

The competition ended and the big moment came. The emcee announced the winners of the fitness, the talent and a few other categories and it finally came down to who was going to represent Waco at the Miss Texas event. The announcer's voice came over the auditorium and she said "First Runner Up"... a short, dramatic pause floated in the air that seemed like forever. The voice suddenly announced "Jessica Zeller"! The crowd was elated. I was elated! But I was also disappointed, because lady to lady, competitor to competior and performance to performance, Jessica gave the winner a good run for her money. But in the end, it wasn't meant for Jessica to take home the Ms. Waco crown. Nonetheless Jessica Zeller had became my new hero that night.

After the show was over, the lights came up and the crowd started to hurriedly go and meet their contestants. I saw the parents of Jessica on the other side of the auditorium, so I told my wife I was going to go over and introduce myself. I had already made my mind up that I was going to write about her. As I approached her and her family, I reached out and placed my hand on her dad's shoulder. The mountain of a man turned and greeted me with a very outgoing and cordial smile. 

I told her father who I was and that I'd like to write a short blog story on Jessica. I suppose the emotion had overcome him, too, because his reply wasn't "sure" or "yes", "no"  or "let's ask her", it was a tear-filled "She's our miracle"! I almost lost it too, seeing this gentle giant so overcome with true, heartfelt emotion for his baby. I composed myself and spoke with him for a minute or two and I asked him if it would be ok to write a story about her. He said she'd be delighted. He gently touched her on the elbow and told her that someone wanted to meet her. I introduced myself and she politely introduced herself. I asked if it would be ok if I wrote a story about her and just as her dad had said, she said she'd be delighted. I told her, "I know you're in high demand right now, so I won't keep you long, but I would love to take a picture with you". She smiled and said "Of course". I traded information with her dad, thanked them for their hospitality and went on to find my family. 

It's been several weeks now and the same emotions I felt for this beautiful and talented young lady on that evening are still very close to the surface. As I write these final words, I still have those feelings stirring around inside me that were so present on that evening.  

I'm going to go ahead and admit it, right here, right now. I'm guilty, yes, guilty. I'm guilty of judging a book by its cover. I'm guilty of trying to determine the outcome of a situation, with a faulty thinking process. A man of my age should know by now that more often than not, making judgmental assumptions based on what I see instead of what I know, normally turns out to be dead wrong. And once again, I was wrong for what I let my mind tell me. When I saw Jessica walk away earlier that morning, I remember thinking "Does she really have a chance in this competition"? In retrospect, I was wrong to ever let that thought enter my mind. Jessica Zeller has a physical difficulty, yes,  but she's far from being "disabled". Jessica Zeller possesses many, many more amazing, God-given abilities and she is a much braver soul than I could ever hope to be. 

It was a profound privilege to meet such an outstanding and inspirational young lady. I'm forever thankful for that night and for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet such a dynamic and driven soul. A soul that has opened my eyes wider than they've been in a long time. It's been said that "people come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime". I'm hoping this is a lifetime meeting.

Congratulations on a job well done, Jessica Zeller, you are a model of inspiration and you have a brand new, lifelong fan.

 Me and Jessica Zeller

The Impulsive Texan

 "Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it"