Homecoming week is a highlight of the year at Sequatchie County High School in Dunlap, Tennessee. The Spirit Wall contests, the costumes for each day of the week, and the parade. On the day of the big game, people line the street to cheer for the football players, the band members, and the homecoming queen candidates.
Many a song has been written about the homecoming queen. We’re told it’s every little girl’s dream. That may be a slight stretch, but it’s one of high school’s top honors. The student body selects a favorite from among several nominees, and only one young lady is crowned at halftime.
Hannah Murphy was on the ballot this year. She’s a 19-year-old senior, and was born with Down syndrome. Let me stress, just being nominated was a thrill for Hannah and her family. That meant she would wear a new dress, get new shoes and jewelry, have her hair and makeup done, and get to wave in the parade, with the rest of the Homecoming court.
The Murphy family moved to Tennessee from Florida in 2002. Hannah was five, and her parents Ruth and Marc had some concerns. Would the small Sequatchie County schools be able to provide services for their daughter? Would she be able to mingle with the "typically developing" student population? Or would she and other special needs students be hidden away in a trailer outside? Oh, it’s happened. It used to happen a lot.
The Murphys soon realized they were in good hands. “We’ve never had an issue,” Marc told me. “Not one.” Principal Tommy Layne, who has been in charge of the high school since 1994, walked me to Hannah’s room. “You’ll notice they’re right here in the middle of the school,” he said. “That’s how it’s supposed to be. They know everybody, and everybody knows them.”
I was greeted by a handful of smiling teachers and aides, and about a dozen enthusiastic students. One of them was wearing a crown. She was singing a song by her favorite artist, Taylor Swift. She knows every word of Taylor’s many hits. How did this outgoing, talented young lady end up being Sequatchie County royalty?
The election certainly wasn’t “rigged,” to use a current buzzword, but there was an energetic campaign, led by a most unlikely group: Hannah’s fellow senior candidates. You read that right. Several young ladies, who had also dreamed of being crowned Homecoming Queen, put their own ambitions aside, and did what grownups accuse them of never doing. They showed compassion. They got together and said, “It’s Hannah’s time. She deserves this.”
Maddie Lofty, Chay Palmer, Savannah Land and Kaylee McDowell are senior cheerleaders. They came by during my visit with Hannah to tell me why they are proud to be part of her court. “She’s so sweet,” one said. “She has the best personality,” said another. “Everybody at school loves her. She consoles you when you’re down, and she’s always eager to help.”
With support like that, it’s no wonder Hannah was elected. Although the official vote count is unknown, it might have been a landslide. At the football game that night, the halftime excitement was amped up more than usual. When Hannah and her dad Marc were announced, the crowd cheered loudly. Hannah smiled and waved. If this alone was to be her moment, it would be enough.
But fairytales don’t end this way. Something bigger was about to happen. With all the beautiful young ladies lined up, arms linked with their fathers, the voice from the press box boomed out into the valley beyond the bleachers: “The 2016 Sequatchie County High School Homecoming Queen is: HANNAH MURPHY!”
Hannah’s reaction is forever captured in dozens of cellphone videos, and incredible close-up photographs taken by Eileen Carter. “I was so surprised,” Hannah told me. “They were cheering for me!” When that died down, the chanting began. “Han-nah! Han-nah!” The football players came out to play the second half, but the highlight of the night had already taken place.
Hannah’s mother Ruth told me, “A few years ago when the Frozen movie came out, Hannah fell in love with the characters, especially Queen Elsa. She became obsessed with all things Frozen. She even started calling herself Queen Hannah, and signed all her school papers that way. So when this happened, we were all just out of our skin with joy.”
Watching his daughter get smothered with hugs from cheerleaders and other students, Marc Murphy fought back tears as he told me, “This gives me faith in our country. Don’t let people tell you we don’t have great kids. You see what’s happening here. They made our daughter’s dream come true.”