A few weeks ago, the performers with special needs at Merrimack Hall were invited to dance in Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa for an event that featured the University’s dance team and sororities. When the invite came back in August, I was thrilled…our young adults, performing on the same stage as their typically developing peers! Merrimack Hall has never been included in an event on a college campus.
But on the day of the show, reality set in and I got nervous. I’ve never been nervous to place our dancers in any venue or at any event. They are always received with rousing standing ovations and cheers. This would be different, it suddenly dawned on me. This event would feature hundreds of sorority girls and the thousands who had come to root for them. No one signed up for an awareness raising event when they bought their tickets to this.
I imagined our dancers would be greeted with either crickets or condescension. Why did we think it was a good idea to crash this student tradition? What would I do if the crowd was indifferent or didn’t watch the dance our students had worked months perfecting? People with intellectual disabilities on a college campus, featured front and center at a large-scale, student sponsored event? There were a million ways this could go wrong.
My heart was pounding with dread as we made our way into the coliseum. My stomach turned a flip when I peeked out of the team tunnel where we entered and saw thousands of people – literally thousands. Biggest crowd our kids have ever performed for..intimidating as hell to me but not to our students.
As the announcer began our introduction, a smattering of applause turned into a greeting worthy of the Crimson Tide itself, eventually drowning out the Emcee until she just gave up. Because our students needed no introduction, apparently.
I looked into the crowd and saw signs that read, “Phi Mu Loves Merrimack Hall” and “Welcome To Our Friends From Merrimack.” I saw young women on their feet, cheering as if a touchdown had just been scored. I saw young men fist pumping, whistling their encouragement and smiling with acceptance. I couldn’t believe it. But then again, I went to Alabama, so I could believe it.
Don’t believe me? Watch this:
Thousands of college students gave that response to 19 kids with Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders and other diagnoses. College students who were there to cheer on their favorite sorority saved their biggest applause for our young adults who worked…and worked…and worked…to prepare for this performance. There was nothing patronizing or polite in the reception the Bama students offered Merrimack Hall’s performers. The cheers they offered were full-throated and full-hearted. Nothing but love and acceptance from the students in the coliseum that day.
During the Mississippi State game, Alabama QB Jalen Hurts took off on another of his signature sneaks, resulting in a TD directly in front of a large group of soldiers and veterans. It wouldn’t have surprised me if he had spiked the ball or done a silly victory dance or if he had jumped onto a pile of his teammates for a celebratory hug (or whatever you call it when 11 large young men cram themselves in a knot and slap each other on the helmet).
Instead, he stopped in his tracks and offered a salute to the soldiers and vets. A female soldier even saluted him back.
As an Alabama native, there have been so many times over the course of my life when I have been embarrassed of our state. The buffoon currently running for US Senate is an excellent example of how we sometimes shoot ourselves in the foot by presenting caricatures, nut jobs who make our state look ridiculous. Also, the Luv Guv. The ick factor in our state capital must rank #1.
But then I look at the young people in our state – big-time athletes, college students, the high school kids who volunteer with our program – and see that they exhibit respect on a regular basis. And acceptance. And sportsmanship. Thank you to those students at Coleman Coliseum and to Jalen Hurts, for showing our state in a better light. It’s not just on the football field that the University of Alabama deserves to be ranked #1.