GUEST COLUMN: Not just a ‘crown and gown’ experience

After being crowned Miss Apple Festival 2018 I’ve been thinking more about the opportunities this platform has and what it means to me. My main goal throughout this year is to not only be a role model for young women, but to inspire people within and outside the community to be confident in who they are.

Looking from the outside you can’t always tell what might be going on in someone’s life. A couple years ago I was diagnosed with spondylolisthesis, but many people couldn’t understand what was wrong, because they couldn’t see it. Unfortunately, this meant I was bullied a ton at school, to the extent that I was beat down to where I didn’t know if I could take any more.

Day in and day out I was dealing with pain emotionally and physically. Even when my so-called friends thought I couldn’t hear them, or when they thought I didn’t see their expressions and actions, I did. I felt every look, absorbed every mean remark. Every push, shove, and poke went to the core. I hurt, they hurt me, and I let them. Why?

I felt weak, helpless, and alone. I thought I deserved it. I didn’t fit in and I didn’t belong. It didn’t matter how nice I was or how hard I tried, I wasn’t going to belong because they couldn’t see the real me.

Imagine being made fun of because of your braces, school uniform, and glasses. Add in being labeled the “nerdy, smart girl,” in middle school, basically an outcast, pointed at, laughed at and targeted daily. Imagine being the youngest by a year, a seventh grader in eighth grade, committing eighth grade social suicide by sitting at the 6th grade table with her dance friend. Imagine on the first day of school having your pain medication taken away by a boy twice your size teasing you and holding it over your head where you couldn’t reach it. If the back brace wasn’t enough of a clue, kids didn’t miss the “donut” I carried everywhere in a sports bag to sit on to help with the pain.

Having spondylolisthesis that can’t be seen from the outside isn’t easily understood by those around you. From the outside I look fine. On the inside my spine isn’t attached and is/was (remains to be seen) slipping off. Imagine having your world be dance and soccer since you were 3 years old all taken away from you. Imagine being in so much pain that you took high doses of pain medications every three hours and it didn’t even touch the pain. Then add on the verbal bullying and being an outcast.

Let’s just say I went through some dark times. I have cried more tears than I thought I had.

I am here to tell you that I didn’t always feel that way. Being judged, humiliated, hated by my peers has, believe it or not, made me stronger. Being hated by someone because of my blonde hair, or because I was smaller, taller, smarter, different, hurt. All the things that make someone different and unique shouldn’t be shamed.

In life you will hit many roadblocks, but how you get around them makes the difference in who you become as a person.

Another opportunity I have with my platform is to inspire others to be whatever you want to be. I’ve been told countless times that I can’t do something because I’m a girl, I’m too young, or that I simply can’t do it. All of these things go in one ear and out the other, because I’m the one who gets to decide my own self-worth.

If I want to be on a robotics team then that’s what I can do. If I want to go into the medical field or into engineering, other people’s image of who I should be wont affect that. I’ve gone to the International Science and Engineering Fair even though I “couldn’t do research.” I’ve won the Whirlpool Innovation Challenge even though I “can’t be an engineer.” What matters most to me is to prove that I can not only shatter people images of who and what you’re supposed to be, but also be an inventor, a scientist, and be in a pageant.

If you can’t tell, being Miss Apple Festival means more to me than just being a pretty face that wears a crown. I am not a stereotype or a beauty queen. Pageants are not just about the gown and the crown, but are also about strength and confidence.

I am a smart, strong, independent young woman who can wear a crown and be an inventor. I can wear a gown one day and a suit the next. It is never an either/or.

I am a survivor of both physical and mental pain. I have overcome challenges, can dance on stage and do things I haven’t done since being diagnosed. If I could go back and change anything I wouldn’t, because it made me into the person I am today. If you are being bullied at school, work, or in everyday life, don’t take it as a negative, because you can come out of it being an even stronger person. Look at it as an opportunity to grow and learn.

One of my favorite quotes is by Chris Coffer. He said, “When people hurt you over and over, think of them like sandpaper. They may scratch and hurt you a bit, but in the end, you end up polished and they end up useless.”

I’m hoping my stories and accomplishments will inspire others to not limit themselves, to have high goals and to truly love who they are as a person. I want to share my story in hopes that I can reach young people and help them use their challenges and turn them into opportunities.

My focus this year is to help put an end to bullying and to encourage strength in one’s self. If any organizations or schools would like me to speak at or attend an event I would be happy to do so. Please contact an Apple Festival Queen Committee member to set something up (269-377-4460 or 269-470-0223).

Audrey Bakerson was recently crowned Miss Apple Festival 2018. She is a resident of Niles.

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