After Mom dropped me off for my first day of high school, I watched her drive away. I was terrified. I had to brace myself to enter the building. School to me was a private hell, where the other kids considered me stupid-after all, I got D's and F's, and I had repeated seventh grade. They also made fun of my weight. I smoothed out the drop-waist navy blue sailor dress Mom had had a seamstress make for me, hoping the style would have a slimming effect on my 5-foot-6, 220-pound frame.

Mother had been praying for me since May and promised me this year would be different. All summer I wondered how. Would I miraculously shrink from a size 22 to a 10? That hadn't happened. Would kids finally accept me and stop calling me names like "Fatso"?

As I walked down the hall, a boy I knew from last year yelled, "Hey, Big Mama! You're back again!" My blue eyes welled with tears. Nothing had changed. My life had turned upside-down when I was ten and Dad's job took us from Indianapolis to Tupelo, Mississippi, in the middle of the school year. Feeling inferior and backward socially and academically, I became shy and reclusive. One teacher seemed to get sadistic pleasure from belittling me. He would start by asking, "Donna, what's the answer?"

I knew the answer, but I had such low self-esteem, I stammered, "I-I ..." In an exasperated tone, the teacher would say, "What's the answer, class? Give Donna the answer." It was a vicious cycle. I ballooned on the outside and closed up on the inside.

My parents took my self-esteem and poor academics very seriously. They worked extra hours to pay for me to go to summer school and have tutors and for a friend to sew me younger-looking styles than the matronly "plus sizes" on department store racks.

Every day I begged, "Mom, don't make me go to school-please!" I pretended to be sick. Once I put a thermometer in hot water and showed my Mom how high the mercury had zoomed. As supportive as my mother (who was a nurse) was, she wasn't fooled by the 106-degree temperature!

My junior high school principal thought I was mentally retarded and had gone as far as I could scholastically. He'd recommended I be physically and psychologically tested and placed in a special-education class. When he told this to my parents and me, we were stunned. Riding home, watching my parents from the backseat, I saw tears silently slide down my mother's cheeks. Just then she turned her head and exclaimed, "Sweetheart, you're brilliant! You've got it in you, Baby! It'll come out!"

My pediatrician and the psychiatrist who tested me had been kind. When I got through the tests, the psychiatrist said, "You did tremendously, Donna. You're not dumb; in fact, you're a very smart young lady. Something has happened to you that has locked you up inside."

Then he said to my parents, "Mr. and Mrs. Shepard, there is a butterfly inside Donna that wants to come out."

That summer Mom came home from her nursing supervisor job each evening and cooked supper for us, but sometimes she didn't eat herself. She was fasting and praying for me instead. One night, I overheard her in the living room: "Jesus, I don't know what's got my child closed up so that she cannot be all that you want her to be. But, God, break it!"

To me she said, "Next year you're going to high school, and you're going to be different. In September, Donna, you're going to be a jewel! I can't wait! God is going to change you!"

At the end of that first day of high school, I was so hurt and miserable that I hid in the girls' rest room, where I could cry in private.

My dream was to sing like the pastor's wife or a missionary I'd heard at church. I would love to sing like that! But then I thought, Nah, I'm not good enough to do that, and I can't think right-I'm stupid.

Our house was filled with music, from Dad's Rodgers and Hammerstein records to opera to "The Wizard of Oz." I came home from church singing hymns, although I was much too shy to consider joining the choir. While other kids my age were into the Beatles and Tupelo-born Elvis, my favorite voices were those of Julie Andrews and various gospel singers. At home, I sang in my bedroom, standing in front of my mirror, holding a hairbrush for a microphone.

Assuming I was alone in the school rest room, I started singing, holding a sustained high note like an opera singer. The acoustics were fantastic! Suddenly I heard a cough in one of the stalls. I grabbed my books and hurried down the corridor. A female voice that sounded like a drill sergeant demanded, "Wait a minute! Come here! What's your name?"

I reluctantly turned around and saw a slender, attractive woman. I lowered my eyes and mumbled, "Uh, er, my name's Donna Shepard."

"Look at me!" she commanded. "Lift your head up! What's your name again?"