How one young Christian took on the second biggest school district in the nation – and won
Fred Astaire had Ginger Rogers. Gene Kelly had an empty street, gleaming in the rain. But in the abiding and eternal annals of dance, none of their soft-shoed artistry may have the lasting impact that Brian Hickman Jr. had on a lonely public school stage, one heady night last February.
For a day that hinged on footwork, though, things got off to a pretty stumbling start.
Brian’s mother, Adriana, woke up not feeling very well, which isn’t that unusual when you’re seven months pregnant and juggling three lively boys, two rowdy dogs, a hard-working husband, and a job of your own. For moms like that, there’s never really an off day, and this was very much an on day, what with the big school talent show coming up after dinner.
Dinner, though, was pre-empted by their oldest son, Anthony, plowing headlong into a light pole while biking home from school. Soon, his banged-up head and his mom’s prenatal discomforts were sitting in an emergency room, awaiting their turn with the doctor.
Sitting there, Adriana kept one eye on her son’s deep cut and another on the clock … the hours were crawling by, and time was running out. Being a mom, she started managing the schedule – her husband, Brian, would take their younger sons, Brian Jr. and Daniel, home to get changed and ready for the show. She would follow, as soon as Anthony could get stitched up.
After that, there was nothing to do but pray that Anthony’s damage wasn’t permanent, that a doctor would come out now … and that, somehow, they could still get to the talent show on time.
They had to be there for this one. Not just because Brian, Jr. was in it. But because he was counting on them … because, after everything they’d been through these last few weeks, it was so very important for this mother to see what it meant to this son to make his dream come true.
At the Hickman house, they’d been hearing about this talent show for months. Brian seemed particularly determined to be in it. The show was an annual event at Superior Street Elementary, where Brian was in fifth grade, and he’d been just as excited about it last year … but, in the end, couldn’t bring himself to try out. "This year," he told his family, "I’m doing it."
It was quite a goal, for a boy as shy and physically challenged as Brian. Born three months premature, he faced his first heart surgery when he was just five weeks old. He endured two eye surgeries at about the same time, a double hernia repair a few months later … and a string of other surgeries and treatments in the nine years since.
"He’s gone through a lot," Adriana says. "From the get-go, it’s been a roller-coaster. We always joke about it, that he’s a very strong-willed child and that if he wasn’t – well, God made him that way, or he wouldn’t have been able to survive."
The greatest challenge for Brian and his family, though, has been his cerebral palsy.
"It’s mainly physical," his mother says. "We have been very blessed. He doesn’t walk very well, but it has never been anything where we’ve had to worry about a speech impediment or any kind of mental delay." Brian is in a standard classroom, likes playing basketball, and enjoys movie nights and Wii games with his family.
"This song says ‘Jesus’ too many times. Doesn’t he have another he can dance to?"
Principal, Superior Street Elementary School
And: church. Brian really, really likes church. He attends Shepherd of the Hills near his home in the Los Angeles area and, "It’s just a blast," he says. "Worshiping God and praising and learning stories and having group time and talking about God and learning more stuff."
"Brian is a different person when he’s at church," Adriana says. "It’s funny, because Brian has a really strong will. He knows what he wants and doesn’t want, and he is very verbal. We’ll be at church and everybody is, ‘Oh, Brian is such a sweetheart,’" and my husband and I are like, "Yeah." And it’s not that he’s not – he’s a good kid – but because of what he has dealt with, his disposition is definitely different at home."
Brian’s joy at Shepherd is particularly evident when he’s performing with the children’s praise band.
"He is up on stage," Adriana says, "and they have them sing with movements and use sign language. Being able to worship and praise where he could dance and do that for the Lord – it was a newfound joy for him. He is just all smiles. It has to do with his faith and his understanding, feeling the joy of worshiping and praising God, and his love for his Savior."
Cerebral palsy complicates his steps – it’s not easy for a boy with two bad legs and hips to dance. But, "I have never been one to handicap him," says his mother. "He just has to do it and figure it out. When he was little and would fall a lot, it was one of those things where ‘I’m not going to be there to catch you when you get older, so you have to get back up on your own.’"
That’s a hard thing to tell your son, on days when he’s struggling just to get out of the car and make his way up the school sidewalk, while his classmates watch. "I’m sitting parked on the street and watching how long it’s taking him," Adriana says, "and it’s hard."
So when Brian announced that he was really going to try out for the talent show this year, the family encouraged him to do so. He had a song, he said, that he wanted to dance to: "We Shine," by Steve Fee. Adriana recognized it as one of the songs Brian sang with the praise team at church. Was he sure that’s the one he wanted to perform?
He was sure. In fact, that was the only song he would even consider dancing to.
He went to auditions, and seemed to feel good about his tryout. A day or two later, the phone rang. Someone from the PTA, which was sponsoring the talent show, wanted to let Adriana know that everybody loved Brian’s audition, and wanted him to perform.
One thing: he would need to do a different song.
"I kind of automatically knew where that was leading," Adriana says, so she immediately placed a call to the principal. The principal, too, knew what was coming. The song was too religious, she said – inappropriate for a school setting. Brian would have to dance to something else.
"I think he has the right to perform this song," Adriana replied, trying to sound more certain than she was. "I know the teachers are sanctioned from being able to voice their religion, but I’m pretty sure Brian has rights." The principal was just as sure that he didn’t.
"This song says ‘Jesus’ too many times," she said. "Doesn’t he have another he can dance to?"
"I’ll hand you his iPod," Adriana said. "It has all worship music, so if he needs to pick another song it’s still going to be a faith-based song. That’s Brian."
Still, the principal was adamant: without a non-Christian song, Brian wouldn’t take part in the show. Adriana hung up and started doing her homework.
"I thought, I don’t want to be sitting here, fighting with her, and then all of a sudden, he really doesn’t have the right and I look like an idiot." She called a local Christian radio station, KKLA, and asked a producer if he knew what Brian’s rights were. He didn’t. But he’d heard of a legal group, the Alliance Defense Fund, that handled these kinds of cases. He looked up the number.
Brian came home from school, and Adriana explained the principal’s ultimatum.
"I said, ‘Honey, they called and this is what’s going on,’ and he started crying. That’s what, as a parent, got my blood boiling – now you’ve upset my child, and I need to do something about it. What broke my heart most was that he couldn’t grasp why they wanted him to change the song."
"Do you want to change the song?" she asked.
"No, that’s the song I picked. What’s wrong with it? It’s a good song. It’s positive. It’s about Christ. What did I do wrong? I don’t get it."
"You didn’t do anything wrong," his mother told him. "It’s not you. It’s them."
"Well, if I can’t do that song, then I don’t want to participate."
"Okay," Adriana said. "Then you practice your song, and I’ll work on getting you to participate."
Adriana felt almost as unsure of herself, calling ADF, as she had confronting the principal.
"I called with the idea of just having my question answered," she says, "not actually going through with anything." But ADF attorneys saw the possibility that a lawsuit could impact millions of children like Brian all over the country. Because Brian was far from the only student being told he couldn’t talk or sing or dance to a song about Jesus.
"Unfortunately, it is all too common," says David Cortman, ADF Senior Counsel, who encouraged the Hickmans to file the lawsuit. "Not only do you get the same situation – where the school denies [students’ right to perform Christian songs] based on flat-out hostility or the so-called separation of church and state – but students are being censored from sharing their faith, wearing a religious T-shirt, starting Bible or pro-life clubs."
Even worse, Cortman says, "As Christian parents, we like to raise our kids as best we can in what the Bible has to say and how to live their lives. But imagine when a young boy or girl goes to school and – if they are like my kids – anything the teacher says is gospel, with a small ‘g.’
"We had prayed about it, and felt like God’s hands were definitely on this."
"Now they are told by their teacher, their principal, and their administrators that sharing your faith or merely mentioning Jesus, as in this case, is illegal, that you cannot do it in the public school."
"You have just shut down that child and taught him at a very young age that there is something wrong with his faith, his faith is illegal, it is not appropriate to share with other people. That’s a terrible message to send our young children."
The solution, Cortman says, is that "The school district needs to understand that this is private student speech – not ‘school’ speech. When it becomes a student’s private speech, the so-called ‘separation of church and state’ does not even come into play. And they should also honor that other First Amendment clause that people forget about: the free speech clause. To honor that and respect that in the Constitution, they have to allow a student like Brian to sing or dance to his song."
To the Hickmans, a lawsuit still seemed too big a deal to make about a talent show. Even if it wasn’t, they couldn’t afford to hire lawyers. But they thought of Brian’s sister, still in the womb, facing this same challenge someday, and of all the other children as frustrated as their son. When Cortman assured them that, as a ministry, ADF would cover the legal costs, they agreed to take action.
"It really began, not out of me trying to be this Jesus freak, but just being a mother and defending my son and having his rights be respected," Adriana says. "Our main goal, initially, was that Brian would get to participate. It wasn’t an attempt to make a statement … but it was something that was going to further our faith."
It would further their lawyers’ faith, too. The talent show was just over a week away, and Cortman and his team knew the Hickmans and ADF were "taking on the second-largest public school district in the country" – one with a $7 billion budget from which to hire its own attorneys.
"Look," Cortman told the family, "I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get Brian to be able to perform in a week’s time. But even if he doesn’t, we will continue to fight the lawsuit anyway, to make sure the policy is changed." Then he glanced over at Brian, whose shyness doesn’t usually prompt him to say much around strangers.
"He just kind of looked up," Cortman remembers, "and said, ‘I really would like to perform at the talent show.’" It was like the boy in the hospital asking Babe Ruth to put one over the left field wall. Cortman, like Ruth, couldn’t say no. "We’ll do whatever we can," he promised.
He and his team immediately set about personally serving the principal, the superintendent, and every member of the school board with a copy of the lawsuit. Days passed, with no response.
Adriana says she wasn’t worried.
"It was one of those things. We had prayed about it, and felt like God’s hands were definitely on this. There was obviously an intent and purpose for the way things were playing out. I just kept saying to Brian, ‘You don’t worry about anything. Practice your song, and I’ll worry about making sure you get up there to perform it.’ I just had faith that he would be able to participate."
With the show now just two days away, ADF attorneys resorted to Plan B: filing an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order to allow Brian to perform. Again, Cortman’s team personally served all the major defendants. This time, they capitulated.
Cortman admits even he was surprised. "To get a school district of that size to do anything in a week’s worth of time is nothing short of a miracle," he says, "and that’s exactly what happened."
He called Adriana with the news, then asked if he could speak with Brian, who "was very happy, very excited. I don’t think he was quite expecting it – nor was I, to be honest. But it was really a joy to be able to share that news and see how thrilled not only he, but the whole family was."
"The Hickmans and ADF were taking on the second-largest public school district in the country."
David Cortman, ADF Senior Counsel
Local media learned about the lawsuit, and Adriana opened the front door one morning in her pajamas to find a television crew standing outside. She declined to comment, per Cortman’s instructions, but soon the story was airing on the evening news and at network blogsites. Friends and family were phoning to confirm that the boy wanting to dance was Brian.
Now the big day was here, and Adriana was sitting in an ER. But a doctor finally came, Anthony was repaired, and she raced home to change and get to the school. She made it for the show with two minutes to spare. The room was packed. Police officers stood around, ready "just in case," one unnecessarily guarding the nervous principal.
Brian suddenly popped up beside his parents. He asked them to pray with him, as they had every night since he’d first tried out for the show. They did, and then he headed backstage.
Minutes later, an emcee called his name. Brian limped out onto the stage, to loud applause. He had been at Superior Street for a number of years; he had a lot of friends in that crowd. He tried not to think about them, staring at him, while he waited for someone to start the music.
Someone did, and the audience started clapping to the beat. The next thing Brian knew, he was dancing. And the whole room came alive.
"I was very scared," he says. "But I just did the song anyway. I kind of, like, conquered my fear of big crowds." All he could think about, he says, was "just going up there and doing my song and praising God
and letting everyone know that He’s our Savior."
We were obviously very proud, and it was just a very ‘feel-good’ moment," Adriana says. "We felt like, ‘What a great victory for him.’ Not one person was visibly bothered." But many were moved to tears and cheers. Still, the evening was bittersweet for the Hickmans. In two weeks, their dancing boy would have hip surgery. He wouldn’t dance again for a long, long time.
But he certainly opened the stage to a lot of other Christian young people. In the wake of the talent show, ADF continued to press the Hickman’s lawsuit, and not long after, the school district agreed to change its policy regarding talent shows, to allow students to include religious songs in their performances. Because of the sheer size of the Los Angeles school district, that policy change has the potential to impact every other public school in the country.
"From beginning to end, our experience with the ADF was very positive," Adriana says. "The whole process was just really painless, really easy. They were very supportive, and gave me the courage to follow through, and to understand that it was the right thing. They were great." In the wake of the case and all the news coverage it received, the Hickmans marveled at how many people – particularly non-Christians – came out in support of Brian’s stand. The day after the show, a co-worker who was not a Christian came up to Brian Sr., marveling at a story he’d heard the night before. "Can you believe this kid was going to do this song?" the man asked.
"That was my son," Brian told him, with a grin.
Adriana’s former boss – a Jewish man she hadn’t heard from in years – called to talk business, then commented on Brian’s dance. "That was so good," he said, "and I’m very happy for you guys."
"That’s when you think about how God uses things," Adriana says. "God has a way of using everything to His glory." If Brian had relented and gone with another song, she says, no one would have thought anything of it. But he didn’t – and the spotlight of media attention made people aware not just of a dancing boy, but of what he was dancing for.
"I’m very glad and excited that I was able to do it," Brian says. "I just really want to spread the word that He’s our Savior and He’s the one who died on the cross for all of our sins."
The word was spread. Because, dancing to "We Shine," Brian was Light on his feet.