Overcoming the odds to reach graduation

When she first came to Concord High School, Shericka Wallace refused to eat in the school cafeteria.

She ate in her classroom instead, afraid other students would stare and laugh at the way she walked and ate.

Her cerebral palsy prevents her from speaking clearly, makes eating a struggle and limits her ability to control her drooling.

One day, her teacher Dee Davis told her it was time. Wallace cried, and soon her whole class was in tears as they watched her go to lunch.

More than two years later, Wallace received a standing ovation from her classmates as she accepted an award for her exemplary character during Concord High School's awards day ceremony.

As high school seniors across the county graduate this weekend, she'll be right there with them. The 20-year-old from Concord will graduate June 12 after years of struggling to find her voice and her place in school.

Wallace blended right in with more than 20 students in Brian Floyd's career management class during one of the waning days of the school year.

She had a test that morning on resumes, job applications and cover letters. She scored an 88, earning praise from her teacher.

"She does a great job," said Floyd, describing how she interacts with the class.

Wallace uses a Tango, a communication device that allows her to type words using a touch screen. With another touch of the screen, the Tango speaks out the words she's typed. She carries the small machine with her from class to class, pulling it out of her book bag to answer questions and work with classmates.

For her senior project, Wallace put together a multimedia presentation about herself. She created slides on a computer program and then typed what she wanted to say for each slide into her Tango. Then she played the recording in sync with the slideshow.

In the slideshow, she explained that she has had cerebral palsy since birth and that the condition limits her muscle function.

The slideshow contains photos of her during her time at Concord High School, home of The Spiders, including a senior portrait of her wearing the traditional black drape and a pearl necklace. And there are pictures of the people who've helped her along the way, including teachers and assistants.

"My greatest skill is working with others," recited the Tango as Wallace pointed to a slide. "I am a people person."

Every now and then Wallace hears hurtful comments, but she takes it in stride, and she still eats in the cafeteria, using a rolling tray to carry her food.

Has high school been difficult?

Eyes wide, she nodded her head.

Some people made fun of her drooling and the way she walked. Others acted as though they were afraid they could catch cerebral palsy.

How did she get through it?

Wallace pointed upward.

"God," said her mom, Jackie Little, interpreting her daughter's gesture. "She prayed about it."

Now, Wallace has friends at school. She's gone to football games, and she went to the prom this year, donning an elegant black dress with pink bows.

"I cried," said Little, describing the day of prom. "I never thought I'd get to see her go."

Davis has taught Wallace for three years.

"She never complains," said Davis. "She doesn't like people making a fuss over her, either."

Davis said Wallace is an inspiration to everyone around her.

"I don't think I've ever been closer to God than when I'm with her," said Davis. "She gives me faith."

Wallace will graduate with a certificate of attendance.

She will receive her high school diploma after she works 300 paid job hours, a requirement under the state's occupational course of study, a program designed for students with disabilities.

She could attend school for another year, but she's ready to graduate.

It's time to move on. Someday she wants to pursue a career in what she loves most.

"Computers," said Wallace, holding out her hands and pretending to type.

Wallace plans to attend Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, where she hopes to take computer courses.

Many people with cerebral palsy use wheelchairs. When she first arrived at Concord High School, Wallace used a walker to get around.

By the beginning of this school year, she was walking on her own but using the elevator to reach classrooms on different floors.

Now, with the help of her assistant, Kathy Horsley, she scales the steps.

Students smile at her in the hallways and teachers know her by name.

"Hey, Shericka," called out one teacher as she walked down the hall last week, proudly wearing her cap and gown. "You look good!"

Wallace has had her black cap and gown for about a month. She's tried it on at least five times, said Davis.

She'll have someone help her up the steps to the stage at the Cabarrus Arena and Events Center on Saturday, but she'll walk across that stage on her own in front of her fellow graduates, friends and family.

Davis said the school has embraced Wallace and other students with disabilities.

"Once a Spider, always a Spider, right, Shericka?"

Wallace nodded, smiling.