Darby is 13-years old and has lived through more challenges in her short life than most of us will ever encounter. Born with Down syndrome, Darby had open-heart surgery as an infant and has survived not one, not two, but three bouts with leukemia. When I first met Darby in October 2008, she was fragile, pale and bald, suffering through the worst of a year-long round of chemo in her two-year treatment protocol. Sometimes, she had to come to dance class wearing a surgical mask, as her immune system was so compromised that she was susceptible to any bug or virus in the air. Many times, she would have to sit down during class, as she tired easily. Her mom, Valerie, said that most times that year, she would barely be buckled into the car after class before she was asleep, exhausted from the exertion of being in a dance class. But no matter how bad she felt, how many times she had thrown up that day, how awful her pain was, Darby insisted each week that Valerie bring her to Merrimack Hall for her Dance Your Dreams! class. Valerie said that being at Merrimack Hall was the only bright spot for Darby during that very dark year.
Darby is what the experts would call high functioning, but what I would call incredible. She performs at grade level academically, is involved in every extracurricular activity her school will allow her to join and is even a drummer in the marching band. She has taken piano lessons, choral lessons, theatre classes, is a member of her school’s thespian club and loves to go to Camp Smile-A-Mile, for children with cancer, each summer. But her favorite activity out of them all is coming to Merrimack Hall because she loves to sing and dance. She advanced up to Project UP last year and loves all the additional performance opportunities she has as a member of our upper level program.
Despite her accomplishments, Darby could be a prime target for bullying. She is naive and trusting, a bit behind the curve socially (she hasn’t noticed boys yet, much to her father’s relief and still likes to play with dolls and with children younger than she is), and she has Down syndrome. While there are many places where she is accepted for who she is, like her church and Merrimack Hall, being in a large public school has put her in the same arena with kids who might not be so kind. We all know the hateful words she may be exposed to someday, those hurtful labels that she might be given, those names she might be called. We all know there may come a time when Darby realizes that she is “different” from her typical peers, when she isn’t included in someone’s birthday party or when she isn’t invited to the prom. If and when that day comes, I know Darby will be able to handle it with the same sort of dignity and courage that she has handled having cancer. I know this because for now, instead of bullying her, her peers have singled her out for recognition and have celebrated her “differentness” in a remarkable way.
You see, Darby has been elected to represent her class in the Homecoming Court tomorrow night! That time-honored tradition of selecting the most popular girls in the school as representatives at the biggest football game of the season has been adjusted slightly by the kids in Darby’s grade. Tomorrow night, Darby’s dad will be proudly strutting down the football field, with his daughter on his arm, a mum pinned on her collar. Tomorrow night, Darby’s grade will be represented not by the smartest girl in the class, or the prettiest girl in the class. Tomorrow night, Darby’s grade will be represented by the bravest, kindest and most deserving girl in her grade. And to think that average 13-year-olds had the wisdom and compassion to select Darby to represent them gives me hope that there are enough young kids out there who are willing to stand up for others, who are willing to advocate for those who might not be able to advocate for themselves. There are kids out there who see Darby for who she is, not for what she’s diagnosed with. And now I don’t know who’s more courageous – Darby or her classmates.
When the day comes for Darby when someone bullies her, puts her down, leaves her out, mocks or ridicules her, I know that she will be able to remember what she feels tomorrow night, that she will remember that when she was 13, the kids in her grade found her to be the most deserving and the coolest girl in their class. She will be able to draw strength and courage from this honor for years to come and will always know that for once in her life, she was recognized for being “special” for something other than having Down syndrome. She will always be classified as having special needs, but tomorrow night, she will just be special. I know Darby, and I know the message that she is special will resonate with her for years to come and will make a huge difference in her self-esteem and in how she thinks of herself as she advances into high school.
We’ve been hearing so much about bullying during National Anti-Bullying Month, so many ugly stories of people of all ages who are humiliated and hurt because of their appearance, sexual orientation, religious convictions, political affiliations, economic status and more. Today, I wanted to share this story of a group of “typical” kids lifting up a “special” kid, honoring her and paying tribute to her because they like her and admire her. I’d love to hear more stories like this one from you – please post your comment on this blog so that we can push back against bullies by sharing examples of anti-bullies!
I will close with a video shot this summer, where Darby is explaining her Beads of Courage with Carolyn (age 18, autism) and Leah, a staff member. You will be able to see for yourself what an unbelievable girl Darby is. And Carolyn, our new staff member at Merrimack Hall, has her own accomplishments to brag about – she will be representing the United States as an ice skater at the Special Olympics in Seoul, Korea, in February 2013!