School has not always been easy for Donna Lina. Her educational journey, plagued with learning challenges and physical limitations, often has been frustrating, and let’s face it, sometimes middle school kids can be unkind. However, as her teacher Karen Stark says, “She exudes joy”, and even when things have been hard or people have been unkind, Donna Lina has always approached people with great kindness.
I agree with Karen when she says that this experience of joy is what this time of year is all about: “the joy of rite of passage, the joy of spending time with friends and family, the joy of celebration, the joy of simply embracing individuality.” I also agree with David Brooks, who says that while happiness is a feeling of personal accomplishment, joy is a more selfless and transcendent emotion. By watching Donna Lina and her classmates on Prom Night, I was transported to new levels of joy.
It began with watching them all arrive in various vehicles—each of an emblem of pride for those inside, whether it was a jacked up VW bug, a 1919 Model T, a Corvette convertible, or a souped up pick up. Donna Lina arrived in a bright red convertible driven by Karen’s husband Matt, who is also an Academy teacher. In the back seat, dressed in her homemade princess-pink ball gown and wearing a sparkling tiara, Donna Lina squealed with delight as the car picked up speed. As she approached the entrance to the Mount Washington Hotel, she pointed and said, “There’s my castle!”
As she arrived, she gave the watching crowd of parents, families, teachers, and friends a regal wave, and then walked confidently into the ballroom. Earlier, she had been greeted by classmates at a local restaurant where they had gathered for their Prom Night dinner, and now she joined them on the dance floor where she danced freely, spinning and twirling to the music, with no fear and no self-consciousness. When the music slowed and it was time for a slow dance, her classmate David asked her if she would dance with him; she enthusiastically said yes, and the prom princess magic was complete.
Donna Lina fell asleep quickly on the ride home, exhausted from all the dancing and excitement, but that night she had done more to lift spirits than she would ever know. No matter who you are, you couldn’t help but smile and be lifted by the pureness of her joy. According to Karen, that’s a daily occurrence; she says, “On even the darkest of days, you can’t help but smile in her presence…. She is a beacon of hope…light…joy.”
In a year during which we continue to celebrate a host of best-in-school-history performances—when we marvel that we are among a constellation of stars that includes champions, top-ranking scholars, award-winning performers and artists, and gold medal winners—Donna Lina’s joy shines out to remind us what matters most. On Thursday night, she radiated the goodness within us all when we are at our best, and her classmates recognized it and surrounded her with their affection. That night she was the Belle of the Ball, and the rest of us basked in her joy.
During the last week of school, Donna Lina gave each of her teachers a potted plant with a note that read in part, “You have planted inspiration and opportunity in my mind and have helped me grow… Thank you. You have helped me blossom.” I was fortunate enough to get one of those beautiful plants, too, and every time I look at it, I remember how beautiful that Prom Night was. It struck me that I’m the one who should be thanking Donna Lina for planting seeds of inspiration and joy in my mind and heart rather than the other way around.
When Donna Lina walked into the Fieldhouse on Monday morning, she did so alongside Ayman, a young man whose family escaped Syria as refugees, who has also had a difficult educational journey. With the generous financial support of some alums and their families, Ayman has been able to board here and has developed a second home. He too radiates joy and gratitude each day and enjoys a close connection to Matt and Karen. What a better way for Donna Lina to end this stage of her journey than alongside someone, who like her, was beaming with pure joy for the gift of this community, the gift of real happiness, and the beginning of a beautiful life.