When I stepped out of the car, the sultry heat of a Georgia summer afternoon pressed against me like an unwelcome lover.  Within a short time, I felt it cling to my skin in layers until I was wearing a heavy cloak of humidity that kept the heat pulsing against my skin. The main street of cafes and shops selling summer clothes and gifts in St. Simons Island village was deserted, like something out of the twilight zone – harsh afternoon light, heat waves shimmering off the sidewalks, blasts of cold air from the open shop doors with windows filled with colorful goods and nary a soul to be seen.  As the day cooled into evening, people appeared from everywhere and the scene was lively.

I was on St. Simons Island to interview Heather Whitestone Miss America 1995, the next day for Pretty Smart: Lessons from our Miss Americas.  So I had that afternoon to wander and explore.  After a short walk – too much like swimming against a slow moving current – I got in the car to do a little sight seeing and to scope out where Heather lived so that in the morning I would know where I was going. 

The island had that peculiar southern smell that I remembered from my childhood when my family would drive down to Florida for a summer vacation.  I don’t know where it emanated from or exactly what it was.  But as soon as I smelled it, I was back decades to childhood memories of cars without air conditioning, the hot wind blowing in my face for hours, hanging Spanish moss, South of the Border restaurant signs tempting travelers for miles along the highway, and bickering with my brother in the backseat until my father threatened to leave us by the roadside.

Heather Whitestone, Miss America 1995 and me at the Miss America Pageant

Heather Whitestone, Miss America 1995 and me at the Miss America Pageant

Heather’s house, though on a main road, was hidden behind a tall lush hedge set back from the road.  It was a classic example of an old southern home; I admired its white clapboard siding, big windows and mossy brick path from the driveway to the main entrance. 

The front door was all glass and through it I could see a large oil portrait of Heather on the wall in her Miss America crown and gown.  I watched as she approached the door, smiling, with a baby on her shoulder.

“This is Wilson,” she said greeting me with a hug showing me her three month old son.  We settled in her living room which overlooked a large yard and the marsh beyond.  Her sleek dark hair was pulled back in a low pony tail. She wore no make-up, but her beauty was apparent. Dressed in a filmy white short sleeved peasant blouse over a white tank and blue and white cropped pants in a small check, she focused her large gray-blue eyes on my face.

Heather had been made deaf at eighteen months old when she was given high doses of oto-toxic antibiotics to fight a life threatening infection. I was not surprised that her speech was that of someone who had learned to speak under difficult circumstances.  The cadence of her words was sometimes halting and her speech had that distinctive quality that I had heard from other deaf speaking people.  I was aware that I needed to speak a little slower and directly to her to be sure that she understood.  Occasionally, when she would turn away to care for Wilson, she misunderstood what I was asking or saying. 

Her story is a complicated one, having had to deal with being different from a very young age.  And she was frank about having faced depression (though she never called it that) during her teenage years.  She, more than most, having been deaf since toddlerhood, has been coping with a limitation in her life few ever have to face.  And yet, she has never let it limit her, nor seen herself as a victim. Her mother gave her ballet lessons as a child, believing that dancing and the rhythm and discipline that went along with studying ballet, would strengthen her speech skills.  Heather learned to dance, not because she could hear the music, but by watching others.  Yet she found joy and grace in movement.   Her talent for the Miss America Pageant was to dance ballet.

Heather has never seen herself as handicapped, though she was confronted with the fact that others saw her as disabled when she became Miss America.  It took her awhile to understand the power of her position to change the perception of people who believed individuals who were deaf or hard of hearing were less capable.  She became a beacon of hope for so many.

Clearly her faith has given her much strength to deal with the cards she was handed and she has used it to achieve so much.  I loved her statement that the greatest handicap anyone can have is what exists between their ears – their own limiting self-beliefs and negative thoughts.  Heather has always believed in pushing herself past any barriers that life might throw at her on  her journey to her dreams.

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