SCHENECTADY On most days, Nalini Persaud would rather have been invisible in the halls of Schenectady High School than have to pass by classmates.
“Before I [would] always leave my class to go to my next class before the bell ring[s] cause I don’t want other students to see me,” she types out on her iPod. “[W]hen they do they laugh at how I walk.”
Persaud, who turns 20 next month, never attended school before moving to Schenectady from Guyana five years ago. She has a congenital syndrome that affects her intellectually and in appearance. Her gait is awkward, labored, and she is significantly underweight. Her speech can be difficult to understand; however, her fingers blur across an iPod, which she grabs when trying to get a complex thought across. Persaud’s face is perpetually elongated, her mouth often agape.
“No one knows when I’m smiling,” she said.
Persaud thought she was unliked if not unwelcome in high school.
Not Monday. On this day she proudly walked the halls of Schenectady High, basking in newfound adulation from her peers, “which made me feel really good and made me feel like now I belong here.”
Her senior classmates Friday gave Nalini Persaud one magical night. A life-changing one, even.
Nalini Persaud is a queen, having been voted one by her fellow seniors at the prom Friday night at the Hall of Springs in Saratoga Springs. The 300-plus classmates who gathered there cheered her loudly and asked to pose for pictures with her in a blue dress, white sash and tiara. On Monday, in the school halls she once dreaded, Persaud continued to accept a string of congratulations.
“I have never felt this special before,” she said.
Picture coming to school for the first time in your life as a teenager and in a new country. Now imagine having physical and development handicaps, and being keenly aware of your differences.
“I’ve been coming to school five years now and no one ever been nice to me,” she types. “A lot of students make fun of who I am and how I am.”
That didn’t stop her and friends from promoting her for prom queen. Classmates warmed to the idea, buying in with sincerity.
Barbara Merchant, a life skills instruction teacher at the high school who was at the prom, worried about how Persaud’s fellow students would react to her winning. “That was one of my biggest fears,” Merchant said.
Short answer: The students roared in approval.
“I’m so proud of the attendees,” Merchant said. “They were so gracious and compassionate and generous.”
Persaud said that before the coronation “everyone was screaming for me, saying ‘I hope you win prom queen,’ ” she said.
“I didn’t want the moment to end.”
When she was named prom queen the students parted, allowing Persaud to take center stage with the prom king, Felix Rodriguez, a football star heading to Utica College.
“I was happy for her,” the 18-year-old said. “I’m glad she won. … Everyone felt like it was the right thing to do. I was proud of our school.”
Rodriguez and Persaud danced to the John Legend song “All of Me:”
’Cause all of me
Loves all of you
Love your curves and all your edges
All your perfect imperfections …
Classmates surrounded the two in a circle as they danced. Rodriguez beamed.
“As it was happening,” building principal Diane Wilkinson said, “there were tears in my eyes.”
Fairly or not, Schenectady High, with its 3,000 students, at times makes news for the wrong reasons. Not this day: A simple gesture gave a woman who felt unliked a memory “she can hold onto the rest of her life,” senior class co-adviser Corinna Heggen said. Persaud would not argue.
“It was the most happiest moment of my life,” she said. And, yes, she is smiling.