By Michelle Smith | May 31, 2011
"I know I'm Down's, but I like UP better. Everybody can be UP Syndrome." -- Rachel Cooperstein on prettyspecialworld.com.
A school year that began with a national sense of sadness and despair over the suicide of a young Rutgers student, allegedly bullied by schoolmates because they found out he was gay, ends with more than 10,000 people contributing video messages to the "It Gets Better" project.
Those videos -- odes to acceptance, inclusion and hope -- have so far received 35 million combined views on YouTube.
What a difference nine months can make.
The students and staff at Dublin High School in Dublin, Calif., would certainly tell you that's true, speaking from their own remarkable experience with acceptance, inclusion and hope.
Like seniors around the country, Rachel Cooperstein and her classmates are getting ready for graduation. They have been to the prom and are finishing up classes and tests, putting the final touches on their last year of high school.
It is a year defined by the usual collection of teenage memories and accomplishments at this suburban high school of 1,600 students located 40 miles east of San Francisco.
It will also be defined by an unforgettable October night. And it will be defined by Rachel.
"Rachel is a little spark," Dublin High principal Carol Shimizu said. "I think what happened with Rachel set a tone here, and when she's not here, there's going to be a void."
"There's two kind opportunities. The wrong opportunity you walk away. The right opportunity is the right path."
Word got around to Rene Cooperstein last summer that Dublin High was holding tryouts for its new, expanded cheerleading program.
But Rene has gotten used to greeting these opportunities with a healthy skepticism. She had tried in the past to put Rachel, who was born with Down syndrome, into similar programs.
"Rachel has loved dancing and performing since she was little," Rene said. "Even when she couldn't speak well and her gross motor skills were a little slow to come, she always did what she could. In her mind, she was doing exactly what she was seeing the other kids do."
Rene took Rachel to dance studios and clubs and to the local youth football league's cheer tryouts, and was told in a variety of ways that "it wouldn't work."
She didn't expect much would be different this time.
Rene brought Rachel to the school cafeteria, where cheer director Kristine Cousins asked a couple of the veteran cheerleaders to take Rachel and one other new girl outside to teach them a cheer.
Rachel came back in, did the cheer she'd been taught and then raised her hand and asked if she could do a cheer of her own.
"She launched into this cheer, complete with what her idea was of a high kick and all these different moves, and when she was done everybody cheered and clapped," Rene said. "Kristine came up to me and said, 'Here's the order form, you'll need to get her uniform right away.'"
Cousins asked Rachel what grade she was in and Rachel said, "senior." And just like that, the girl who had been turned away in so many other places was a varsity cheerleader.
"Any other program I've ever run, I've never turned anyone away," Cousins said. "But I'd never been presented with the opportunity to teach someone with special needs, to have someone on the team with a disability."
Still, Cousins said the standards remained the same: Show up. Do the work.
And Rachel showed up to practice every day, went to weekend conditioning sessions, bonded with her teammates. She made friendships that her mother didn't have to facilitate.
Rene and Cousins watched closely as the football season began to make sure that Rachel -- cheering on the sidelines at packed Friday night games -- stayed hydrated, didn't get overwhelmed by the noise and the crowd, and rested when she was tired.
The first time the Gaels scored a touchdown and the cheerleaders sprinted to the end zone, Rachel stood back and looked confused. One of the other girls came back and grabbed her so she'd join the group.
During almost every game, the cheerleaders would join arms and form a circle around Rachel and encourage her to do a solo routine.
"I've never really felt she was different from the other girls," Cousins said. "I couldn't think of anyone who would think this was a bad idea."
Head cheerleader Kara Pittson became particularly close to Rachel.
"I love Rachel, I really do," Pittson said. "I don't think she felt like an outsider in any way. Oscar, our choreographer, would put her right behind the front row. Everyone would do their thing and Rachel would do her thing and I think it made it more fun for her. And no one was iffy at all about her being there. She brought a lot of fun to the team.
"It didn't feel as serious as the year before. It was more carefree."
Shimizu, the principal, had only one concern. What would happen when the cheerleaders left the co**** of Dublin?
"I didn't want her feelings hurt," Shimizu said. "I was concerned that other people wouldn't understand what was happening here, that this was special."
And no one would have predicted what happened next.
"If you don't be yourself, that's not who you are."
The day you give birth to a special needs child, Rene Cooperstein said, you "wipe the slate clean."
"You have to start dreaming all over again what you think is possible for this child," Rene said. "The first thing that happens is you have to mourn, you have to readjust. You have to come up with some different dreams, and they are not going to be the same."
It was the tormenting of a bully that pushed Rene to put Rachel into a new middle school in Dublin, ultimately routing her into the special day class at Dublin High. And Rene admits she worried when it was time for Rachel to go to high school.
"I remember thinking a lot, 'I hope this is OK,'" Rene said.
So when she heard that the cheerleaders had nominated Rachel for homecoming queen -- Cousins texted her with the news from cheer practice -- she was floored. She held the phone in her hand and stared at it for a long time.
"How does this happen?" Rene said, her voice cracking. "For her to be on the cheer squad, making friends with the girls and participating in an activity that any high school girl would love to be a part of, that was enough. It was enough."
"If you are mean or nice to people, it goes into their heart."
Ask almost anyone who was at the football field at Dublin High back in mid-October about what happened on that chilly, packed homecoming night, and then hand them a tissue. Not a dry eye.
Shimizu remembers the moment when Rachel was about to walk down the red carpet with her brother Jared, also a senior.
In her blue formal dress, she stood next to her brother and looked unsure about where to put her arm.
"He took her arm and he put it through his and he patted her hand," Shimizu said. "It was the most tender thing."
Assistant principal Theresa Young remembers the sound of more than 3,000 people in the stands erupting when Rachel pulled the winning red rose out of her flower box, signifying that she was the homecoming queen.
"The place just came down," Young said.
Pittson was in the announcer's booth as the rally coordinator, given the job of announcing the homecoming court. She knew Rachel had won about 15 minutes before she announced it. It was a tough secret to keep.
"But I knew it even before I actually knew it," Pittson said. "Even the other girls who were nominated were rooting for Rachel."
Special education teacher Jaime Melvin said she will never forget the look on Rachel's face.
"It's what a princess looks like," Melvin said.
Cousins remembers the moments after Rachel won. The plan was that she would change back into her cheer uniform and finish the game on the sideline.
"She said to me, 'No, I'm the queen tonight,'" Cousins said. "I said, 'Point taken. Not a problem.' In that moment, she was just like any other teenager wanting to just live in the limelight for the moment."
Rene, standing off to the side with her husband, Howard, said the moment was "surreal."
"All 19 years flashed in front of me," Rene said. "I saw her as a baby, trying to reach milestones. I remember trying to teach her how to crawl. She was maybe 13 or 14 months old, putting those Cheerios in front of her, manipulating her legs and arms to get them to remember what to do. … I just couldn't believe it. I just kept thinking, 'It's enough.'
"At a time when teenagers are supposed to be so self-centered, to see young people stepping outside of themselves and voting for someone who was not typical like them, who has physical differences and developmental differences. These kids were extending themselves, and to me, that was the story."
The reaction to Rachel's crowning was seismic. The story was covered by local television channels and newspapers. The video of her crowning appeared on YouTube.
Rene received emails from as far away as England and Canada, Japan and Australia. She and her mother heard from grandmothers who had grandchildren with Down syndrome, saying they had new hope for what was possible for their own kids.
Rachel was recognized in the movie theater, people waved to her in restaurants.
"People were touched by it. I think we aren't ever going to know how many people were affected that night," Cousins said.
"Give yourself time to understand."
Melvin runs the special day class at Dublin High, a program she founded four years ago. She has worked from the beginning to integrate the special needs students into campus life.
The freshmen leaders come into her class every week to serve as "buddies" to her students, working on art projects and playing games. They say hello to one another in the halls.
One of the custodians regularly tosses a ball around with the students at lunch, chasing the occasional stray ball onto the roof.
The program's speech therapist has set up a small greeting card business, with Melvin's students helping to make seasonal cards, which have become a hit on campus and around the city.
"There's been a strong bond with these kids for a long time," Shimizu said. "That kind of acceptance has been here all along."
But Melvin feels like Rachel's foray into the mainstream student experience has opened doors.
"I've really only had a couple of kids who tried to go out into the mainstream, for an art class or a special ed academic class," Melvin said. "And it was different for the teacher and different for the student and it kind of didn't mix. But now I'm revisiting that. We're going to do more of that."
For example, some of Melvin's students will join the school's culinary program next year.
"It has certainly put a face to more of the students in this classroom," Melvin said. "It's opened more doors for our kids and it's given teachers a different view of what they can do."
Pittson put it another way, "I think there are more people here going for things they wouldn't go for because of Rachel."
"Keep your focus. Energy up. Be proud. Be success."
In the weeks after homecoming, Rachel and the entire campus settled into the school year, Rene putting Rachel's crown into a glass cabinet in their home and the picture of Rachel wearing the crown into a frame.
But it was clear that something had shifted.
When Cousins saw the girls on her cheer squad struggling with school or with their relationships with other girls, she would simply ask, "Would Rachel give up right now? Would she say she can't do that?"
A few months after Rachel's coronation, another senior, an autistic student named Robby Houghton, had his own special opportunity. He had been observing band class all year. In March, the marching band arranged for Robby, dressed in full uniform, to lead them around the track as the drum major on the day of the city's annual St. Patrick's Day Parade.
Three more special needs students tried out for the next year's cheerleading team. And they all will be on the squad.
Rachel, meanwhile, stayed on the cheerleading squad through the basketball season, which ended in February. She cheered at basketball games and at a Golden State Warriors game in front of 17,000 people.
The Dublin cheerleaders went on to their competition season, and Rachel's first and only season as a cheerleader was over.
"At first, I think she was sad," Rene said. "That first Monday rolled around with no cheer practice, and I had to tell her, 'No, not today.' But after about a week, she was OK."
Rachel went back to writing tips for her website, prettyspecialworld.com, and posting her tips on Twitter. She was featured in a national women's magazine and is working on a book with her mom.
She attended senior prom in a limousine with a group of students from her special day class and their parents -- she also was nominated for prom queen, but alas, this time someone else won.
Graduation is just around the corner. Rene said there are postsecondary programs available for Rachel, and Rene is looking into whether there might be classes at the local community college that would be appropriate for her.
Rachel said she is excited for graduation.
"I will miss high school but that's OK, because I go to more school and I want to start my career," Rachel said.
"She's serious about it," Rene said. "She has some pretty specific ideas for the website, and she wants me to look into getting bobbleheads made with her tips on them."
Rachel said that her homecoming queen experience will be the thing she remembers most about her senior year. There probably are a large group of Dublin High seniors who can say the same.
"I try to be kind and all of Dublin High School was so kind to me," Rachel said. "It touch my heart. Thank you."
"My secret to be happy is just to be happy. Just be it!"