- Associated Press - Monday, April 27, 2015

AMARILLO, Texas (AP) - Not often does a sophomore ask a senior to the prom, so if Jake Clement was going to do this, he was going to do this right.

So on a Monday - March 23, the first day after spring break - Jake walked into a first period science class at Caprock High School where Liberty Jennings was in her wheelchair. He had with him a poster with the big question on it, and some flowers to seal the deal.

“Liberty is sweet, friendly, fun to hang around with,” Jake told the Amarillo Globe-News (https://bit.ly/1bhsvTE).

After he formally asked her to Caprock’s April 18 prom, classmates squealed. Liberty let out a nervous and excited giggle before, of course, indicating yes.

It was not always this way - not this way at all - but Liberty has extreme difficulty in communicating. Often, it’s in a way only a mother can know. Ileana Jennings, an English teacher at Caprock, knows.

Back in seventh grade, when Liberty was healthy and energetic, back when she could sing in church choir and was first-chair trumpet at Happy, back when she passed her physical to play basketball, she had big plans.

She wanted to be a bounty hunter and rock star. If for some reason that failed, an artist. Then came the mysterious tick bite.

And so these days her goals are a bit more modest, but just as meaningful. She wants to graduate. She wants to somehow walk the stage to get her diploma. She wants to attend Amarillo College.

And, oh yes, like any 18-year-old senior girl, she wants to be the belle of the ball. She wants to go to prom.

“It is the only thing she can talk about or focus on right now,” said Ileana. “It is all about the prom.”

Liberty’s life has been robbed of so many basic things the last five years. But inside the body that is failing her remains the spirit of a young girl where prom is a rite of passage, a night to look and be special.

“A few years ago, we didn’t know if we would make it this far,” Ileana said. “We were asked by a doctor if we wanted quantity or quality of life. We definitely said quality, and that’s what we’re getting.”

Liberty was as normal as a young girl can be growing up in Happy. Then the first six weeks of her seventh grade year, she began to slur words. Her hands started lightly shaking.

That began a long series of visits to first a diagnostician in Swisher County, then to doctors in Canyon, Amarillo and Lubbock; to a child neurologist at Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth. All the while, Liberty’s health worsened.

There were more tests than can be recalled, including a 10-day stretch in Fort Worth. There was testing for muscular dystrophy, Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy.

Nothing definitive until Amarillo ophthalmologist Dr. John Klein suggested she be tested for a biological disease. After all, this was a family of campers. Maybe Liberty caught something that way.

On Jan. 10, 2010, she was, as her mother said, “off the charts positive” for Lyme disease. It is an infectious disease transmitted by a tick bite that, in its worst state, can severely damage the nervous system.

Jennings said so much damage was done to her daughter’s nervous system that no antibiotics can heal her now.

Lyme disease has robbed Liberty of much of her memory. Tests showed her brain shrunk 10 percent in the last year. She has lost the ability to function on her own.

For the most part, she has lost her speech. She cannot feed herself or walk, dress herself or bathe.

“Every day is a battle because this disease is progressing beyond anything we can control,” Jennings said.

It is a blessing, her mother said, that Liberty’s memory is such that she can’t remember what normal was, what hiking in Palo Duro Canyon was like, playing an instrument, or singing.

But while the abnormal rages, normalcy still speaks. They drive the 30 miles daily from Happy to Caprock. Libby carries a 95 average in a combination of mainstream and inclusionary special classes where someone will perform simple but vital tasks for her, like turning a book page.

In anticipation of prom, Mom bought her a dress in Fort Worth the first weekend of March, a reward for a good doctor’s report and even better grades. All she needed was a date.

That came from young Jake. Because Jake’s mother, Eliza Clement, also teaches at Caprock, she and Ileana often had after-school meetings. Often, Liberty and Jake would wait on them.

Before Liberty’s motor skills limited her speech, they would talk about all things, most especially Harry Potter books.

So on a Saturday night, a friend with a nice sports car picked up Jake and Liberty, who was a prom queen candidate. They rode to a Mexican food restaurant, where a group of 25 students and teachers met for dinner.

Then they headed to Amarillo Civic Center Complex. There her radiant face will be untouched by disease.

And, in her own mind and own way, Liberty and Jake will dance the night away.


Information from: Amarillo Globe-News, https://www.amarillo.com

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