Thomas Dario Fernandez was a bit surprised when his classmates at Hialeah Senior High School nominated him to be prom king — but he was downright stunned when he was crowned.
“It felt good to be special, even for a moment, to win something huge like prom king,” said Thomas, who is diagnosed with autism. “It was pretty much the happiest day of my life. I’m not going to lie. I was pretty elated.”
Thomas wasn’t royalty at a countywide prom held Thursday at the University of Miami’s Donna E. Shalala Student Center, but, in some ways, the event was even more memorable. Organized by the Miami-Dade Schools for students with autism and other developmental disabilities, this prom is often the only chance many such students have to experience year-end festivities the way most typically developing teens do.
“It is meaningful, because it helps people who are struggling with learning disabilities, much like I am,” the 18-year-old said. “It helps people learn how to get along, no matter how different you are, how able you are.”
Thursday’s formal — the theme was “Hooray for Hollywood’’ — marked the 10th year that Miami-Dade school administrators hosted a dance for students with special needs. Organizers say about 350 youngsters attended this year, from every corner of the county.
For many of the kids, the annual prom is the only opportunity they have to dress up and let go, and they look forward to it months in advance. Unlike Thomas, most of the students on the autism spectrum do not attend their school’s traditional prom, said Natalie Sanz, who teaches students with special needs at North Miami Beach Senior High School.
“For the majority of these kids, this is their one and only prom,” Sanz said. “They are able to dance with their peers, and not be judged. They just don’t feel judged here. They feel comfortable.”
“My students started asking about it right around December,” Sanz said. “They know it’s coming, but some of them have no perception of time.” A month before prom day, Sanz took her male students to a Men’s Wearhouse in North Miami-Dade to try on tuxedos. “As they were trying on clothes, some of the boys were dancing in the middle of the store,” Sanz said. “I know they’re excited about it.”
The guys wore everything from tuxes to T-shirts to ties. The gals swirled on the dance floor in gowns from every color of the palette — though the pink family fared particularly well. Some of the teens danced flawlessly to salsa and pop as a DJ, whose son attended the prom, kept the music flowing. Other kids just jumped up and down. There was a conga line, and an occasional break dance.
Like other proms, this one included a court. Students at some of the participating schools voted for who would represent them, resplendent in white satin sashes with gold trim. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho swooped in after lunch to crown this year’s king and queen, and offer words of encouragement to the other students, who became surprisingly quiet for the coronation.
“I’m here to recognize the most beautiful children — the most beautiful students — anywhere in the world,” Carvalho said. “And they happen to be beautiful dancers, as well.”
Years ago, only a handful of schools offered a year-end party for students with disabilities, and Carvalho attended one of the proms. He said he was blown away, and decided at that moment the event would be expanded districtwide. “I thought to myself: This is so cool. If it’s good enough for some of the students, it’s good enough for everyone.”
Homestead High’s Danessa Blackston, 19, entered the center in a red chiffon gown. She left with the hardware: a gold-jeweled crown. Standing on a red carpet, Danessa posed for photos. She pronounced the experience “real good.”
Her king, Adam Gueredian of John A. Ferguson High School, looked like a lawyer in charcoal gray slacks and a lighter gray shirt. He said he liked being king.
The ceremony ended abruptly, however, and the DJ launched quickly into Pharrell Williams’ breezy Happy as the teens once again stormed the dance floor. This prom is all about the dancing, though not for everyone.
“It’s fun; it’s entertaining,” said 18-year-old Alain Figueroa, a senior at Homestead High. “I’m not so much of a dancer. Mostly I like to greet people, and have fun with my friends,” he said.
Thomas Fernandez, Hialeah’s prom king, said he won’t win any dance contests, either, though the dancing and food are his favorite parts of the prom. This year’s prom will be the last for Thomas, who is graduating and planning to attend college.
“We love him. We’re going to miss him a lot,” said Alejandra Arguello, who oversees a life skills program at Hialeah High. “He’s very open. He has an opinion on everything.”
Arguello said she wasn’t really surprised when classmates at Hialeah chose Thomas to be their prom king. Students at the school, she said, are very accepting of kids who are different. And Thomas made friends there.
“I was happy for him,” Arguello said. “I was so happy at that moment, for him to be prom king at a regular school prom.”
For the other teens sharing the Shalala Center Thursday, just being there was good enough.