Whitley McQueen leaned toward her mother, Priscilla, while watching her cousin cross the stage during last year's Hancock High graduation, and said she wanted to follow in his footsteps.
"In four years," she said, "that's going to be me."
The goal might not seem too unusual, until you consider Whitley wasn't referring to the accomplishment of graduating, but rather the physical act of walking across the stage to receive her diploma.
Whitley was born with arthrogryposis, which led to stiffness in her bones and joints. She also now suffers from scoliosis, kyphosis, club feet and restrictive lung disease. The combination of ailments keeps Whitley confined to a wheelchair most of the time but last year was somewhat of a turning point.
Mostly home-schooled while growing up, Whitley started attending public school two days a week during seventh and eighth grade.
As part of Whitley's goal to earn a "real, normal" high school diploma, she decided it was time to attend school full time with her mother by her side.
Just attending Hancock High isn't enough, though.
Whitley, now a freshman, is determined to live the real high school experience. She recently joined the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, but the bigger feat was becoming a member of the Hancock High cheer squad.
"We just want her to be as normal as other kids are," Priscilla McQueen said. "She's just as normal as they are, she just has to have a little extra support. We appreciated everyone making her feel welcome and including her."
"I just felt like doing it, and I think it's fun," Whitley said. "Ever since I was little, I always wanted to be a cheerleader. I think it's pretty fun and exciting."
In the weeks that followed, Whitley learned the team's routines and has been incorporated into the choreography as much as her condition will allow.
"Cheerleading has made it easier for her to want to get up every morning and go to school, because it gives her something more to look forward to other than just school work," McQueen said.
Aug. 23 was a big milestone for Whitley, who turns 14 today, as she participated in the school's pep rally leading up to the football team's opener against St. Stanislaus College.
Whitley was even hoisted onto a teammate's shoulders during the rally.
Understandably, it was an emotional moment. Whitley seemed to keep her cool, though her mother didn't.
"It was really amazing. I had made a statement on the way there I knew I was going to cry and there were tears, but of course they were happy tears," McQueen said. "It was great to see her able to get up in front of all these people and not be scared and just be herself."
Because of safety concerns involved with the proximity of the cheerleaders to the playing field, Whitley didn't end up making her football debut last week.
The Hawks don't play this week and Whitley is unsure if she'll take the field next week at the game against East Central High School, but she hopes to attend most of the Hawks' home games.
Thinking about making her football debut in front of thousands of fans makes Whitley equal parts nervous and excited, she said.
"When I was little, I used to always do cheers. I always thought it was cool, doing all the stunts," she said. "I'm really excited to do that, but I'm kind of nervous because there may be a couple thousand fans there."
Last Friday's pep rally was a good boost for Whitley, who said she has already received positive feedback.
"I've had a couple of people tell me just from that pep rally that I have inspired them, and that made me really happy," she said. "That's one of the reasons I want to be an actress. Just because I'm not supposed to do something, doesn't mean I can't do it."
It's that kind of mantra that has the McQueens already focused on graduation in four years.
"That's what we're going to do," her mother said. "Whatever it takes, that's what we're going to do."