Crystal Carter had a good reason for taking all of the Champaign Central High School Academy sophomores out of class Monday to hear Miss America speak in the school's theater.
The academy - a technology-based school within Central High School - has had a bullying problem.
Because Miss America Erika Harold's platform is anti-bullying and because she was harassed racially and sexually early in her high school career, she's more likely to make an impression when talking to students, including students who bully and those who are their victims, Carter surmised.
And Carter was right.
?She was absolutely marvelous,? said Carter, director of Central Academy. ?When you can hold the interest of young people like she did - she basically had them eating out of her hands - you have to be a dynamic person.?
Senior Ross Hiner called Harold down-to-earth as well.
?She made some good points about high school violence, some true points and some honest points,? he said.
Earlier Monday, Harold spoke to all the students at Prairie Elementary School in Urbana, where she attended the last two grades after being home-schooled. She then traveled to her alma mater, Urbana High School, where she spoke twice, each time to half the student body.
She then met with about a dozen handpicked Urbana High students in a lecture hall, turning the tables on them and asking for their advice on how to better spread her anti-bullying and anti-violence message.
Harold and her family set up the school appearances outside of the official Miss America system. Harold had been home in Urbana on vacation since Dec. 18; she resumes her official duties today by flying to Seattle. She will spend a week in San Diego later this month, making appearances in connection with the Super Bowl on Jan. 26.
During all her appearances Monday, Harold stuck to her anti-bullying and anti-violence message, speaking each time without notes. She also did not identify the school where she was harassed - University High School - until she was asked to do so, by a Central student.
She also created playful moments, ?crowning? students at Prairie and students and teachers at Urbana High with her tiara, which she carried in a small, see-through case. She crowned two girls at Central after each took turns singing at the podium. Junior Whitney Keaton's version of ?The Star Spangled Banner? brought down the house and prompted Harold - who sang an aria in the talent part of the Miss America competition - to say she was glad Keaton hadn't been competing against her in the pageant.
Harold told the audience at Central that the racial and sexual harassment she experienced at Uni High could have happened at any school.
?I don't want you to think I hate Uni High,? she added. ?There were a lot of positive things there. There are excellent teachers there, and they really encouraged me to be an independent thinker and not to believe everything that's written in a textbook. I also had my only athletic experiences there - when I ran cross-country and played basketball. My shining moment as an athlete came when I made my only basket - for the opposing team.?
Harold said her experiences at Uni - she transferred to Urbana High in the middle of her sophomore year - also helped her learn who she was and to later stand up for what she believes. She believes bullying has ?very detrimental consequences and is a widespread problem? and that it was an ?overriding factor? in the Columbine school shootings in Colorado.
She said harassment causes victims' self-esteem to plunge and victims to feel they have no value. She urged students at all three schools to take a little time out of their day to say hello or be kind to students who might be harassed, bullied or ignored by other students.
Harold also mentioned that she continues to speak out on abstinence from premarital sex, drugs and alcohol, even though Miss America officials had wanted her to avoid that topic. However, she did not go into detail on her stance on abstinence until Central student Kristin Luttrell, who attends Harold's church, the Urbana Assembly of God Church, asked her to talk more about it.
After Harold asked the audience if it would be OK, she said she made a decision as a young girl to abstain from sex until marriage. One reason, she said, is that she is a Christian and her faith is important to her.
Miss America said she also looked at what she wanted to achieve in life and decided sexual involvement would prevent her from reaching her goals, including that of becoming Miss America and the first black female president of the United States.
Harold urged all the students to work hard to achieve their goals, saying she always did even when people would tell her they were impossible. One was to attend Harvard Law School; she said some people told her she wouldn't be accepted because she's not white and not rich enough. Harold was accepted at every law school to which she applied - including Harvard, which deferred her admission until fall 2003. Harold said she began competing in pageants as a University of Illinois sophomore to earn scholarship money to pay for law school; the cost of Harvard will be $150,000.
Harold told the students Monday that she has earned nearly $80,000 in scholarship money. As Miss America, she has the potential to earn about $250,000 altogether, depending on the fees negotiated for her appearances.