In the body-bumping hallways of Godwin Middle School in Dale City, Monasia Ray deftly zoomed around in her wheelchair. Although stricken with a rare muscle disorder, the eighth-grader had the skills of an athlete as she weaved through the crowd, and the congeniality of a politician as she gave shout-outs to teachers and high-fives to friends.
Only occasionally does Monasia, 13, seem different from other students. When she needs the help of a teacher's aide to go up or down a ramp. Or when she needs to open her locker. Instead of the combination locks everyone else uses, she has a key lock, and even then, someone must remove the lock from the locker.
Godwin's 1,150 students don't pay much mind to Monasia's disability; last month they elected her over a popular football player to be student council president. They said they voted for her simply because she is easygoing and inclusive.
"I had sixth-graders who voted for her and didn't even know her, but recognized from her campaign speech that she was outspoken and sweet," said teacher Elizabeth Albright, the student government's adviser.
Like any good politician, Monasia has a knack for sound bites. When discussing the election, she said only: "I didn't promise anything I couldn't keep."
Monasia was born with a rare physical disorder, arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, that severely limits her movements. The joints in her body are impaired by overgrown fibrous tissues, making her bow-legged and her feet inwardly bent.
The cause of the disorder is unknown. It is one of 6,000 rare disorders that affect 25 million people in the United States, said Abbey Meyers, president of the Connecticut-based National Organization for Rare Disorders. Arthrogryposis multiplex congenita can lead to severe complications later in life, causing bed sores and infections because of a lack of movement, Meyers said.
When Monasia's mother, Theresa Ray, gave birth to her at Inova Fairfax Hospital in February 1991, she was immediately concerned. The baby came out curled up, and her legs were crossed.
"I was crying. . . . I didn't know what was going on," said Ray, 33.
Monasia was in the hospital for a month while doctors ran tests. When Monasia was released from the hospital, Ray was told she would not live past age 1, and if she did, she would not live longer than 10.
Ray married Monasia's father, a Marine, that July. Seven months later, they separated.
"It was a big toll for him. He couldn't handle it," Ray said. The couple remain separated and Ray, who has full custody of Monasia, hopes he'll want to "be a father again."
As Monasia grew, her speech was slightly slow. But, with speech therapy, she was able to speak with more ease. With the help of physical therapy, she shattered doctors' predictions.
When Monasia was 3 and started preschool, her mother told the class about her condition so that the students would know why she uses a wheelchair.
"The last time she did that was in fifth grade, and I don't let her do that anymore, I do it," Monasia said. "I told her, 'When I get to middle school, goodbye.' "
"Yeah, I'd embarrass her," Ray said. "She thought I would tell everything about her condition -- some things she wanted private. Plus, she was starting to be a talker, and she wanted to be independent and do that on her own."
At Godwin, Monasia is a conscientious student, said Gary Winkler, her career and technical education teacher. She helps calm the class down when other students get rowdy, but she never condescends.
Her mother, a hairstylist, has helped Monasia hone her fashion sense. Monasia, who likes computers, aspires to work in the fashion industry as a graphics designer.
"She treats herself like she's one of us. She likes to play around," said Jasmine Garris, 13, of Woodbridge, who is Monasia's partner in technology class.
Between classes, the affection Monasia has earned shows in the hallways. Students shout, "Hi, Monasia!" or "Bye, Monasia," in a singsong cadence, while she and a teacher's aide zip through the hallways saying, "Excuse us! Excuse us! Coming through!" Some students even call her "Madame President."
As Monasia wheeled from one class to the next, skillfully steering through the throng, she succinctly and nonchalantly summed up her life at Godwin Middle School: "I don't feel out of place."