LINCOLNTON, N.C. -- Lincolnton High School freshman Zharia Link could hardly believe it when she landed a nomination to the homecoming court.
It seemed even stranger when she won.
Zharia had expected a more popular girl would be picked to represent the class at a big pep rally and parade through downtown.
“Why me?” she asked – and later found out: The whole thing had been a prank. Her nomination and election to the court was a joke.
As word spread, the school, family members and community rallied around Zharia in a show of support similar to that a Michigan community recently displayed for 16-year-old girl who was also the victim of a homecoming prank.
Instead of backing down, Zharia went forward.
“It was a big joke to them, but not a joke to me,” Zharia said. “I told myself: They’re not going to win. I’m going through with this. To me, it was an honor. I’d never done anything like this before.”
Tonya Link is proud of her daughter.
“I was very disappointed about the prank,” she said. “When Zharia first got home she was very upset. She’s self-conscious about her weight. And she was afraid people would boo her and throw stuff at her at the pep rally. But we talked to her – me, her father and family members, and we told her: You don’t never quit. We stand behind you. Now, in the end, she has more self-confidence. Now, she can say ‘I’m a big girl, so what?’’’
Lincolnton High Principal Tony Worley said that after teachers informed him of the prank Zharia was given the option of dropping out.
“But we strongly encouraged her to participate,” he said. “It was her decision – and we supported her.”
Meanwhile, student body president Nate Andrews had also heard buzz about what happened. Checking the school handbook he determined the prank rated as an example of bullying or harassment.
“I wasn’t going to tolerate that from anybody,” Andrews said. “This is a mainly friendly school. Most students are welcoming and take pride in their school. It’s a large family. I knew we needed to take care of this.”
Andrews met with Worley and teachers and began tweeting students – telling them that at the homecoming pep rally on Sept. 21 “we needed a standing ovation for Zharia.”
‘Scared but excited’
When Zharia started school on Aug. 27, she saw it as the beginning of something positive. She expected four years would fly by and she’d be off to college, majoring in journalism.
An aspiring writer, she’s been taking notes about everything that’s happened since the prank. Maybe she’ll turn it into a story someday.
Her nomination and election as a homecoming representative seemed a little “weird” at first. But Zharia said the overwhelming support that came her way canceled any confusion or hurt.
Each class elected two homecoming representatives – a boy and girl.
In Zharia’s case, the boy who’d been elected – also the apparent victim of the prank – dropped out and was replaced by the next highest vote-getter, Andrew Avery.
Zharia had made peace with the pranksters, whoever they were.
“I didn’t care if people had picked on me – it didn’t bother me,” Zharia. “I was very excited. I was happy.”
Homecoming adviser Heidi Anthony took Zharia under her wing.
“She got my hair done and helped me pick a dress,” Zharia said. “And we went shopping for jewelry.”
Teachers helped her get a corsage and a car for the parade. Some parents chipped in financially.
On her Facebook page, Zharia told everybody she was “scared but excited.”
And she also had this to say: “…Everybody needs to grow up…I’m never backing down from anybody.”
School officials were never able to identify the handful of students who played the prank. The freshman class has about 200 members, but Worley estimated Zharia had about 40 votes.
“I don’t know the intentions of the voters,” he said, noting that as freshmen transition into high school there’s still a certain amount of immaturity.
Upperclass members reacted swiftly to the homecoming joke and Worley hopes they sent a clear message.
“I think the lesson learned is valuable,” he said. “This student body won’t allow any bullying or harassment.”
Worley said Lincolnton High is a diverse school where there’s no mold or stereotype students have to fit – a place where students “can be themselves.”
Still, he said the school wants to “limit the possibility anything like this (prank) happens again.”
Officials are looking at ways to revamp the nominating process for homecoming – possibly by self-nomination instead of anonymously in homerooms.
Also, on Oct. 10, there’ll be a “Unity Day’’ focus at the school during National Bullying Prevention Month.
Homecoming Day still echoes in Zharia’s mind. She remembers riding in the parade, waving at family, friends and strangers.
And she remembers walking into the school gym, wondering what kind of reception she’d get at the pep rally.
More than 900 people stood up and cheered.
“Oh my goodness, it was the biggest cheer I’d ever heard in my life,” Zharia said. “I didn’t cry, but it was emotional. Inside, I knew people cared.”