Square Peg

photoSydney tried out for the cheerleading squad.

“Let’s get a little bit rowdy, R-O-W-D-Y!”

In the cafetorium, I watched her audition as she executed the moves and called out the words just liked we’d practiced. She was a bit timid, her eyes sliding to the other girls, following their moves with a slight delay. But she did it! Trying out was all I expected; the outcome didn’t matter. It was the experience of taking a risk and working with a team that counted. I was delighted by her enthusiasm and incredibly proud of her courage. But it didn’t end there; while she didn’t meet the technical requirements, the coach still offered her a spot — as an honorary cheerleader. She was thrilled.

I filled out the paperwork, entered the practice schedule on my calendar and wrote the checks. I didn’t mind forking over $100 plus for gear — frankly, I would have paid whatever it took — but we ran into problems when ordering Sydney’s uniform. Communication, timing and various circumstances combined for an unfortunate result: There would be no team uniform for Sydney. It was suggested she could cheer in shorts and a school T-shirt.

I said no. How could I do that to her? Wearing a uniform is the mark of belonging. I couldn’t put her in front of the whole school in completely different attire. It would defeat the purpose of having her on the team.

My heart sank. She would be so disappointed.

The song “One of These Things” has been on Sesame Street from 1969 through today. The catchy and familiar tune — I’ll bet you’re singing it in your head right now — innocently illustrates the qualification and grouping of objects, teaching a basic lesson in sorting. I’m certain it wasn’t intended to represent the segregation or alienation of people because nowhere is diversity celebrated more than on this endearing and enduring television show where monsters and humans of all colors and sizes populate the community, and kids with special needs are a regular part of the mix. Inclusion was in their script long before it was in the vernacular.

However, I can’t help hearing those lyrics in the context of my daughter when certain situations arise, situations in which it seems painfully obvious she just doesn’t belong. Maybe my sensitivity is heightened because of the perception that disability equals different, and different isn’t always desirable, particularly in junior high school.

Maybe it’s because she’s smart enough to know she’s different, but doesn’t quite know what to do with that knowledge. Most people — kids and grown-ups alike — want to be included. We all have a basic human need to belong. And my budding young woman of a daughter, wanting to fit in, is all too often seen as a crab among starfish. The fact is, much about her is the same as her typically developing peers; her body is changing rapidly, her hormones are in full swing, she’s tired and moody and a little rebellious, she succumbs to academic stress and social anxiety. It’s a confusing time for any kid, let alone a teen who is intellectually challenged. Expecting her to recognize and articulate her feelings is too much pressure. It’s unfair.

“I don’t want to become a woman, Mom,” she says to me, trying to untangle her bra straps. “And I don’t like zits.”

On another day she says, “I’m too big for that car seat,” and climbs over her younger sister’s booster and into the back seat of the van, where she slumps down after buckling herself in. “Can you please turn it up?” she asks, singing along with Zendaya on Radio Disney.

Sydney has been in a tug-of-war with herself the last few years: She wants to grow up, she doesn’t want to grow up. She wants to be independent, she wants to be taken care of. Back and forth. Her internal struggle manifests frequently enough that when my cell phone rings during week days, I brace myself for the probability that it’s the school. “What now?” I think wearily as I catch the call before it goes to voicemail. Attention-seeking behaviors, non-compliance, minor defiance are the usual issues, but recently, Sydney had a pretty big meltdown; uncharacteristic of her and with no observable trigger.

I wasn’t surprised she couldn’t tell us why, but I didn’t doubt for a moment it was no random explosion. While we scratched our heads and wondered what could have caused such an outburst, it really wasn’t that hard to see. On top of her normal adolescent travails, her world was rocked by the loss of MeMe, her beloved grandma who died of cancer mere weeks earlier. Though she can’t grasp the permanence of death, she senses the pain of separation and feels the void absence has left. She worries people will go away and never come back. At a tipping point, Sydney found herself completely overwhelmed emotionally and, unable to cope with it, she lost control. I can’t say I haven’t done the same.

Good people go into education; good people who care and want to make a difference in kids’ lives. Special educators are extra-good folks. Coming from a family of teachers — my sister, my brother, my mother and my aunt taught high school special education, and my grandmother started her career in a one-room schoolhouse — I’ve seen firsthand the impact they can make. I’ve also seen the frustration of good people limited by flawed administration and bound by a convergence of circumstances; budget restrictions or staff shortages or conflicting methodologies. And I’ve seen a handful of people, definitely a minority, who should consider another line of work.

What parent doesn’t want his or her children to have positive experiences in school? To be responsible? To do their best while exploring their talents and abilities? And likewise, who doesn’t hope for excellence in her children’s educational opportunities? We want nothing less for Sydney, but it doesn’t come easy. We have to work for it. That’s our job.

Steven and I learned to navigate the system. We’ve learned about her rights and about Wright’s Law. We’ve learned the alphabet of acronyms: IDEA, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; FAPE, Free Appropriate Public Education; LRE, Least Restrictive Environment; and IEP, Individualized Education Plan. We’ve learned to do our research and work with her support team, determining how best to serve Sydney and meet her needs. We’ve learned that buzzwords about trending educational models for interaction between children with special needs and their non-disabled peers — words like “mainstreaming” and “integration” and “inclusion” — are often just so much rhetoric, and that giving kids the tools to traverse the world with confidence is less about bureaucracy and more about those individuals who set a course for the stars and teach their students to go after their dreams.

We’ve learned that sometimes things go smoothly, even brilliantly. And sometimes … they don’t. We’ve learned that when it comes to advocating for our kid, we can get a little worked up, but after all, she’s our kid. From the start, Sydney’s dad and I made the decision to open up a world of possibilities to her, regardless of diagnosis and despite what limits others might see when they see Down syndrome instead of a child. We decided to empower her to embrace as much as she could, becoming whatever she could, without pre-determining what she would and wouldn’t be able to do. A large part of that commitment requires guiding her through a minefield of her own making as she learns how to behave, how to cope, how to grow up. It means sticking by her and championing her true potential, even when she slips, and even when the world sees the apparent differences and not the beautiful sameness.

After her incident, she wrote in an apology letter: “I’m definitly trying to do my best . . . . I’m so sorry for the way I overeacted. A little bit. Well a lot. I’ve never did this before. And I’m terrbley sorry.” She signed at the bottom, “Love: Sydney Kay Kent.”

I read the words she’d penciled on white lined paper in her childish but legible handwriting, some scribbled out and others inserted and thought, “Oh, baby girl, I’m the one who’s sorry. I’m sorry for seeing you, if only briefly, as ‘not like the others.’ I’m sorry for losing sight of who you really are and what you are capable of.”

With renewed focus, I went home on a mission. My girl was not going to cheer in shorts, but neither was she going to miss the opportunity to participate with her peers in this classic social ritual. There had to be a way to duplicate the cheerleading uniform. I got online and searched through hundreds of styles, ruling out the closest matches because of the time required for custom orders. Finally I found a stock uniform that was comparable.

With expedited shipping, it got here before the first game. It isn’t identical, but with the same colors and a similar pattern it is close. She might not be just like the others, but she will fit in. She will belong.

Check out this savvy young woman, Megan Bomgaars, another cheerleader who happens to have Down syndrome. She has a spirited message for teachers: Don’t limit me.

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