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"Ice Cream": Third Place, Family Circle Fiction Contest 2011

"Ice Cream," by Kathy Paulsen, is the third place winner in the Family Circle Fiction Contest 2011.
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Squeaks of shoes and folding chairs compete with the murmured voices of attendees getting settled as the seats around me rapidly fill. We have arrived early, not daring to miss a good view. I turn to my husband and squeeze his hand. Like the other parents here, I am proud of the efforts of my child, those efforts that brought her to this point. She will not win an award today. She will not be recognized in any special way during this ceremony, no notations next to her name in the program, no distinctive colored cords around her neck. But she has earned a high school diploma. This is huge.

It occurs to me that many families here, not just mine, have underlying stories. I remember hearing about the students with drug problems, the attempted suicide that shook the whole community, students who lost their homes during these high school years and struggled for enough stability to finish. There are often stories behind the surface.

And as many here must be thinking, I wonder at the passing of time. Of course there were days and weeks that tested the endurance of everyone in the family. But looking back, the years have passed by quickly, with many memories accumulated in this building.

She did not attend her senior prom. But she did go to the Homecoming Dance this year. She had never been to a school dance before. None of them had. Her close friend, one of three, suggested they all go in a group. With reluctance, they agreed. In so many ways, their process echoed that of revelers in houses all over the town: selecting just the right outfit, applying makeup and doing hair, gathering early for photographs. These four also had a group pep-talk. For two, they faced the question of dancing in wheelchairs. For the other two, including my daughter, they faced other challenges from the party environment. All four had underlying fears of being bullied or shunned. They spoke candidly about most issues, and they agreed that as a group, together, they could face it.

Unfortunately, the night of the dance, rain was pouring down. After the pre-party and photograph session, we caravanned to the wheelchair-accessible entrance of the high school. Holding umbrellas over our lovely teens, we protected them the best we could. They still got wet. Hearing our banging, a staff member opened the door and declared that we needed to go to the student parking lot entrance, where the security check point was. I stared incredulously, as the door swung shut. We piled back into the cars and drove around. We piled out again. The kids got wet again. We passed the check point. We took the circuitous route around to the accessible ramp, toward the ticket table.

Purchasing the tickets, we were the only parents in line. In defensive answer to the silent question on the seller's face, I explained that we would stay long enough to get our students downstairs, where the dance was, then would exit until their calls for pick-up. The woman presumably in charge replied nonchalantly, "I don't even know if the elevator is working tonight." The elevator was working, and our kids attended the dance, determined to be part of the student body. Afterward they gathered for dessert. Dancers and parents alike celebrated, with bittersweet taste, their bravery at reaching yet another milestone.