Richmond Middle School welcomed a hometown girl-turned-celebrity when 2008 Miss Missouri Lacey Fitzgerald returned home to visit with students yesterday.
Miss Missouri, a 2002 RHS grad, presented her platform "Right Decisions, Right Now" to eighth grade students in a special assembly.
Introducing herself, Fitzgerald told students how she came to be involved in pageants starting at the age of five years old.
"I was one of just a few girls in Richmond to do this (enter pageants)," said Fitzgerald. "I traveled to 35 states because of my involvement with the pageants."
She went on to say that it took her five times of entering the Miss Missouri pageant before she made it. She said she had to keep working and practicing. She had a goal — to make it to the top ten.
The first year, she won evening gown and swimsuit, but not the top ten. She tried several years. She even changed everything she could change on the outside — her hairstyle, gown, and talent. The fourth year, she won swimsuit, but still no top ten and that's when she thought about giving up.
"And I did. I gave up for a while," Fitzgerald admitted. Then, her father pointed out that soon she'd be "too old" to compete for the title the next time, and how would she feel about looking back on that and not trying again?
She said she went back at it with renewed focus. She sought to regain the excitement and passion she'd had when she first began to seek the crown. That time, she made it.
The 25-year old beauty told students it doesn't matter where you're from; it's what's inside that determines your future.
"I wouldn't have gotten to do so many things if I'd given up," she pointed out. She said she has visited children's hospitals, appeared on the Ellen Degeneres Show, was on a reality show for 20 days in California, met the Jonas Brothers and visited the television set of "Ghostwhisperer." One of the highlights for Fitzgerald was when she got to "hang out" with Miss America.
"Go out and try something just for a year, sports, theater, music, whatever," she said. She encouraged students to find things they're interested in.
At this point, she turned the attention to upcoming things the eighth graders will face next year. She reminded them there would be more decisions in high school, more teachers, more homework, more chores at home too.
"You're the big dogs now, here at the middle school. Next year, you'll be the underdogs," she said. "You're most vulnerable then. Know what you want to be. The decisions will be a lot tougher."
Fitzgerald talked about the pressure students may experience to try tobacco and other things. She cautioned them about getting caught in the trap of "Just try it one time. It won't affect my life. It's just once."
She told the story of her grandmother, who at age 14 and at the pressure of a friend, tried a cigarette " just once. She became a chain smoker, has a chronic cough and emphysema now and has difficulty getting around.
"It's a choice, but it may affect the rest of your life," she said.
Selecting a group of volunteers from the audience, Fitzgerald explained they would be playing a game called "Ships and Sailors." She had four commands that the group was to respond quickly to. When she said, "Ships," the group would run to one corner of the commons. "Sailors' would send them dashing to another corner. "Hit the deck," meant to fall to the floor where they were, and "Captain's coming" meant they were to snap to attention and salute.
The group was given the commands in various orders and in rapid succession. Soon the students were responding less quickly, less willingly and with much less precision. She asked them if they were tired, fielded a few replies, then sent them to the task again. This time, the orders were even faster and she put them through the pace longer.
Now she called them to the stage, where she had them sit. Handing them a straw, she told them to put the straw in their mouths and breathe through it while pinching their nose closed.
Addressing the audience, she pointed out the breathing was more rapid and much harder to do with the straw. It had reduced the size of their windpipe and less air could come through.
"This is what it's like for your lungs when you smoke," she said. It was harder the second time for the students to perform. Likewise, your body is affected when demands are made upon it all the time. She emphasized the importance of making the right decisions now, then opened some time for questions, even passing around her crown for the students to try on.
Fitzgerald told The Daily News that she wanted the students to know that she's just like them, she came from where they are now, she's not perfect (she did get a detention), and that the important thing is she had a goal and kept trying.
Photo: Miss Missouri Lacey Fitzgerald carefully places her crown on RMS student Jason Ward's head after the eighth grade assembly that featured her platform, "Right Decisions, Right Now." (Photo by Brenda Jensen/The Daily News)