Sitting in my journal, I have a million and one titles for a series of stories that surround my sweet brother (and I am so excited about them!), but here is numero uno.
If you’re new here, my younger brother M has Down syndrome. Next to Jesus, he’s been my whole world up until meeting my husband and having our son. Now I share my world with a few more hearts, but M remains my best friend. So much of my life can be traced back to him – my career path, my heart for adoption, the leadership roles I’ve taken on throughout high school and college, my Dr. Pepper 100k experience, my often times overly passionate advocacy for the community of individuals with special needs.
He is a big deal. And the coolest part? He doesn’t know it. He’s out there living his very best life, touching lives left and right, and ending his day with a big bowl of chocolate peanut butter ice cream, clad in his boxer briefs, watching a 10-minute video on how to clean an outdoor pool.
A few weekends ago, my brother came for a visit along with my mom and aunt. It was wonderful family time, and like all good family visits, we ended our time with a trip to the local ice cream joint. It’s important to note that when we are nearing the evening hours, my brother has been known to get a little extra goofy. We are ordering our frozen treats when he wanders away. I go looking for him, knowing he couldn’t have traveled too far from his awaited ice-cream. Sure enough, I find him in the dark of a picnic table, talking and laughing to himself. We go find a more well-lit spot to sit, and I notice the surrounding families staring at him. They weren’t shooting him glares, because I’ve seen people look at him with those before, but they seemed to be more of a “what on earth?” kind of expression. He doesn’t notice, but I do. I wrap my arm around him as we walk, and try to ignore the watchful eyes of those around us. I don’t know – maybe he was exercising his sailor’s mouth before I got there. Maybe he lifted his shirt up. Maybe he screamed for no good reason. All things he’s been known to do. Or maybe these individuals were just curious – wondering why he looked different; why he was talking to himself. Maybe they were just trying to figure him out. I can’t know for sure, but whatever the case may be, those stares stung.
I understand that one’s natural response to “odd” behavior or appearance is a turn of the head. But a quick one. There is no reason for a full examination of a person as a result of what you may see or hear. My brother has attended church with me several times, and it is always a point of high anxiety for me, because I know that if he doesn’t behave quietly and calmly and sing on key, people will naturally turn around and look to find where the out-of-place noise is coming from, and when they see him, they are going to stare. Again, not because people mean to offend, but because they are reacting to something they aren’t familiar with. But why aren’t they familiar yet? Why is it so head-turning to hear an excited yell in the middle of a sermon? Or see a wheelchair coming into the store? Or watch a young man with Down syndrome eat his ice-cream?
This has always been my world, and I am working to accept that it is not everyone else’s, but I am also calling on us to think before we turn our heads. To replace our disgruntled reactions and puzzled stares with a smile. To embrace the person inside of the disability or diagnosis the world sees first.
The week after my brother visited, my injured hope was restored by a band of unlikely high school students. I am beginning year two as our middle school’s inclusive education teacher – teaching a modified curriculum for ELA and math, drawing up a course for life skills, and managing the handful of students on my caseload. During the second week of school, all of our district’s elementary schools, its middle school, and its high school collected in the high school gymnasium for Convocation. This was a large gathering of students, parents, and teachers all raising their voices in worship to Jesus and introducing the new school year’s theme: “Preparing a Table.” The theme surrounds the idea that we are all welcome at the table of our heavenly Father, regardless of what makes us different, broken, or “less than.” Therefore, we should prepare tables (literally and figuratively) for others – changing our circles to look more like horseshoes, inviting and welcoming all. And I’ll be darned if that isn’t a theme that screams inclusion.
As students file into the bleachers, I spot an unfamiliar student with Down syndrome sitting in a row by himself. Several things jump to mind 1.) he looks like my brother! 2.) how awesome that our private school is inclusive of students with cognitive impairments 3.) why is he by himself? I get stuck on that third one. I ask the high school principal who this student is, and I come to find out that he is a new student that they are so lucky to have. I agree. He is looking all around him – perhaps to find a friend, perhaps confused by the chaos around him. When I see him, I see my brother. When I see him alone, I am filled with heartache. I am just about to go sit next to him and introduce myself (because even a teacher is better than no one, right..?) when a high school student leaves her trail of friends who are all ready to take a seat and jumps down a few rows of bleachers to chat with him. I can’t hear what they say to one another, but I see him smile. And soon, I see a group of students surrounding him. My heart takes a huge sigh of relief. THIS is what it’s all about.
As convocation wraps up, an onslaught of students funnel through the exit doors. Being a teacher in a middle school, I usually try to keep a safe distance from my students during social events, so they can feel fully included and independent. However, with the commotion being overwhelming for one of my students, I stayed a bit closer to him to make sure he was doing okay. I heard several voices calling out his name, and I saw four freshmen boys, who knew this student from their 8th grade year, jumping down the bleachers toward him. My mama bear came out, and I moved a little closer to my student. I’ve witnessed the “I-like-you-because-you-will-do-whatever-I-tell-you-to-do-so-we-can-get-a-good-laugh-at-you-when-it-looks-like-we’re-laughing-with-you” fake friendliness one too many times to not have my guard up in defense of an individual with a disability. Much to my surprise, these freshmen boys surrounded my student with high fives, “it’s good to see you’s,” and “what’s up man’s?” They talked, and I stepped back. They were being genuine. How easy would it have been for them to ignore him? To embrace their new role as high schoolers and leave this middle schooler to stand there by himself? The leadership, the inclusion, the honest commitment to relationship and acceptance these freshmen boys exemplified made my heart soar. Did I mention that these were FRESHMEN BOYS? One more time for the people in the back! FRESHMEN.BOYS. A good crop they are. And again I am reminded, THIS is what it’s all about.
To the high schoolers who went out of their way to include, to embrace:
Thank you. Where most would have stopped and stared, you stopped and cared. In a high school where image is everything, you set your pride aside to love the one who needed it. In a world so concerned with status, your willingness to place another in front of yourself gives me a hope in humanity that I needed to have restored. Your hearts will change this world. Though the individuals you stopped to love may never say thank you, they notice you, they appreciate you, and they think you are the coolest ever. And they will love you even when you don’t deserve it; even when you fail to love them in return. How do I know this? Because I spent 13 years of my life living in a bedroom next to a brother who I see in the face of these individuals you stopped for – a brother who changed my world forever.
We have to know that individuals with disabilities are our neighbors, our siblings, our children, our classmates, our friends. They are not a surprise. They are not a burden, a disappointment, a failure. They are not a reason to stare.
Unless we are staring at them in admiration. Because admirable, they are.