IM this article to a friend!

June 5, 2004

Prom for Perkins School students is both familiar, unique

From: Boston Globe, MA - Jun 5, 2004

By Megan Tench, Globe Staff | June 5, 2004

Like most seniors closing a defining chapter of their lives, students from the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown had a vision: A prom in a dimly lit hall. Silver, gold, and purple balloons in the shape of stars floating in the air. A rotating disco ball and lots of long strands of silky decorations smooth to the touch. A "Twilight Under The Stars," the prom's theme, is exactly what students like Rachel Kobierecki and her boyfriend, Gerard Landry, got as they walked arm-in-arm from their campus cottage to the transformed Dwight Hall.

Tinsel sparkled sharply against the spotlights, appearing like swirling shadows to some of the blind. Giggles and chatter overwhelmed the hall Thursday night as couples swayed to a mix of their own musical selections, ranging from Madonna's "Lucky Star" to OutKast's "Hey Ya!" Hands fluttered excitedly as deaf students communicated through sign language while stomping their feet and dancing to music vibrating off the floor.

It was a night most teens dreams of, but for these students and their parents, the prom had special meaning. "I couldn't sleep," Kobierecki said as she stood underneath Dwight Hall's star-themed trellis.

Wearing a spaghetti-strap black dress, Kobierecki swept her fingers meticulously across the red embroidered design snaked across her midriff. "I was just looking forward to tonight," she said.

In his matching black tuxedo, Landry, who is also visually impaired, reached for her hand. "I just can't believe it's here," said the graduating senior. "My last prom."

Founded in 1829, the Perkins School is home to 180 students. The oldest facility for the blind in the United States, its most famous student was author and social worker Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind. Her teacher, Annie Sullivan, was a Perkins graduate. All Perkins students have varying degrees of blindness. Many more are also deaf, prone to seizures, autistic, or have multiple disabilities.

Given the complexities, Thursday night's gala was a mix of traditional and not-so-traditional prom activities.

Perkins' prom isn't just for seniors and their dates. It's open to all students. Also, all Perkins seniors were crowned king and queen in a mid-prom ceremony filled with tears and applause.

For class president Stephen Yerardi, the coronation brought a little confusion.

"I'm still at odds about it because it's like holding two government offices: A president and a king. You can't do that!" quipped Yerardi, a history buff who was recently accepted at Keene State College in New Hampshire.

Like at any high school, seniors run the show, choosing the prom's theme, colors, and decorations. Their advisors took them to a local party decorations store and watched as they felt their way through, deciding upon large and medium stars.

"They told us whatever they saw in their minds, even the colors," said Jill Arnold, a senior advisor who is a speech and language pathologist at the school.

Relationships between Perkins students escape the superficial. They pick each other based on personality and common interests, not looks.

"We have a lot of couples," said spokeswoman Barbara Castleman. "A lot of students meet their spouses here."

At one side of the crowded hall, Allison Richissin danced, a girl with a personality much bigger than her wisp of a frame.

"I was looking forward to this all year," the 17-year-old said as her husky boyfriend, Jakob Burton-Sundman, 21, took a fruit-punch break.

Allison's mother, Liz Richissin, watched, her eyes glistening with tears.

"When you have a child with disabilities your greatest fear when they're born is that their limitations will keep them from having the same experiences as other children," Richissin said. "So it just feels so good to see her having a good time. This school gives them that."

For Kobierecki and Landry, who have dated for five years, the night was bittersweet. Landry is graduating and plans to attend the University of Southern Maine, he said. Kobierecki has one more year at Perkins.

"I'm happy for him, but I'm a little sad," she said, as the last few songs played.

Landry, too, doesn't want to say goodbye.

"I honestly am worried," he said. "I just hope she'll be OK because I'll miss her. I truly will."

They spent the last hours dancing under the cardboard stars.

© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.