MCCOOK, Neb. (AP) — She's Miss Nebraska now, but in grade school, no one wanted JaCee Pilkington as a partner for classroom projects.
That's because Pilkington, crowned Miss Nebraska in 2013 and who competed in the Miss America contest in September, never had a friend in elementary school.
“I was always the one who never had a partner in class when it was time to pair up,” she told students at St. Patrick's Catholic School on Tuesday. The exclusion extended into other areas.
“The kids would tell me I couldn't play with them on the playground. It was really confusing to me.”
The McCook Daily Gazette reports it got so bad that she would cry in the mornings when her mom would drop her off for school, Pilkington recalled. In fourth grade, kids began to note she always had her homework done, so Pilkington would show up 45 minutes early and do the homework for four or five kids a day. “Then they would be nice to me,” she said. For a little while, at least.
It wasn't the greatest of times but she hung in there, and in high school, she finally found a friend. But because she didn't do sports, Pilkington said, she was excluded from a lot of activities when other kids got together.
Now a senior at Doane College in Crete and studying business and political science, she credits her faith for getting her through those years.
“My mom would pray with me before I got out of the car, that I would always be respectful and loving, even if I wasn't treated nice. It wasn't always easy.”
Pilkington knows what it's like to be treated unfairly and encouraged students to reach out to others. “You are perfect exactly the way God created you. Just because you're different, doesn't mean you're wrong.” She likened herself and others as a lighted peg on a LiteBrite Board — “I know, this dates me,” she joked — with every person unique and colorful with different talents.
“But if you don't have God shining through you,” the peg is not lighted and becomes worthless.
Although she looks like the typical beauty pageant contestant — long blond hair, slender build, flawless skin — Pilkington herself admits that looks can be deceiving.
“People think my life has been perfect, an easy ride,” she said after her presentation. “But they don't know what it used to be like, that I was bullied.”
As Miss Nebraska, Pilkington competed in the Miss America pageant in September but did not advance beyond the first round. Originally of the Scottsbluff area, Pilkington said she decided to enter the local competitions for Miss Nebraska because of the huge scholarships available. The Miss America pageant awards $40 million in cash and in-kind scholarships per year, with Pilkington receiving enough scholarships to pay off all her college debt.
During a question-and-answer session Tuesday, a student asked Pilkington if she is still bullied.
After the giggles from the audience died down, Pilkington replied that yes, it can still happen.
She recalled that after being photographed recently at a Husker football game with Jack Hoffman, the 8-year-old survivor of brain cancer and inspiration of Team Jack, some Twitter feeds commented that she wasn't pretty enough to be Miss Nebraska.
It was hurtful, Pilkington admitted, but “My faith and relationship with God gets me through. You've got to let that stuff just roll off your back.”
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