What Happened When A Radio Talk Show Host Used The “R” Word On Air

This post contains graphically offensive racial and ethnic slurs that are not a part of my vocabulary…I am using them to illustrate a point. I am deeply offended by the use of words that disparage or diminish any group of people.

Words…what power they have.

The words we choose to use can open a dialogue or shut one down; they can make a friend or an enemy; they can forge a bond or create a divide.

This morning, local radio station owner Michael St. John was hosting his daily morning talk show when he unintentionally ignited a firestorm by his repeated use of the “R” word. I didn’t hear it myself but one of the parents in my program did, and she called me. She was hurt and outraged. She said, “You are our voice…please speak for us” so I called the station to see if Mr. St. John would speak with me. We talked for nearly an hour and I think both of us came away feeling positive.

On-air, Michael relayed the story of two separate events that happened to him yesterday that involved two people with special needs, one who worked in a grocery store and the other at a fast food restaurant. In both instances, the person with special needs was unable to perform the job duties they had been assigned. In both instances, everyone involved had become frustrated – the people with special needs and the customers they were tasked with serving. Michael explained to me that he was trying to ask a general question…is there some sort of governmental mandate that is requiring businesses to hire people with special needs even if they aren’t qualified for the jobs?

I should mention here that Michael’s radio station is a conservative talk station, which helped me make sense of his “big government interference” theory. I should also mention that there is no governmental mandate to hire people with special needs and that I strongly encourage businesses to give jobs to people with special needs when they can. We have two employees with special needs who make valuable contributions to our organization each day.

In both of these instances, the person with special needs had difficulty making appropriate change for a purchase. Michael wondered why they were put in the position of operating the cash register if they weren’t skilled enough to do so, which is a valid question. Personally, I think the inability of some fast food workers to make change has more to do with our failing school system and our minimum wage than it does with having special needs but that’s a political ball of worms that I don’t care to open in my blog.

People didn’t hear Michael’s question or understand his point because all they heard was his choice of words…retardedretardretarded afflictions…and his repeated use of “them” and “those people.”

When I asked him about his use of these words, he was adamant in his intention that he used these words to describe the diagnosis of the person and did not mean to cast aspersions on them. And I was stunned to hear that Michael actually has a step-daughter with an intellectual disability. Turns out, Michael is not offended by the “R” word as a parent and did not seem to be aware that its use is no longer deemed appropriate.

I wondered how a person – especially one who has a family member with a disability – could be so oblivious to the fact that the “R” word is no longer acceptable but I reminded myself that he lives in a small community in North Alabama, which could explain a lot. Rednecks can be slow to catch onto trends.

Ouch…that stings because I, too am a redneck from North Alabama.

When I tried to explain to him that the “R” word is inflammatory and negative, he was a bit defensive in his stance that you can’t eliminate a word from the dictionary just because some people find it offensive.

Here is one thing Michael said to me (paraphrased):

People with retarded afflictions shouldn’t be put in jobs that don’t match their skill set.

So I asked him to substitute other offensive words in this sentence and see if he thought it would be acceptable to say them live on the radio, like this:

Faggots/niggers/chinks/kikes/dagos/wet backs/rag heads/crackers shouldn’t be put in jobs that don’t match their skill set.

I think a “lightbulb” went off for Michael.

The surprising thing was that the longer we talked, the more I liked Michael, even though I was primed to take his head off. He truly didn’t intend to offend people with special needs or their families. He truly intended to simply ask what he thinks is a valid question. He is truly grateful for the job his step-daughter has and knows that she takes pride in having a job she can do independently and well. He truly wants other people with special needs to have that same employment experience- he doesn’t want them to be placed in jobs that are inappropriate for them because he truly hated to see two people with special needs becoming frustrated when they were unable to be successful in their assigned tasks.

Michael said to me, “When a door slams in your face, a window will open and I think this happened today so that you and I would have this conversation.” He’s promised to issue an apology/clarification on air tomorrow and has invited me to be his guest on his show in September, an invitation I’m happy to accept.

I may not agree with his politics or enjoy conservative talk radio but he’s not a bad guy…he just made very poor word choices. I do the same thing every day when I drop “F” bombs around. There are certainly people who tune me out or become outraged with me because I say “fuck,” even if they agree with my message. So a lightbulb went off for me, too.

Although I’m sure I will continue to drop “F” bombs when I believe they are appropriate and while “fuck” may be offensive to some people, it is an adjective or a verb, not a noun used to disparage someone.

Which brings me back around to words and their power. We have advocacy groups telling us every day that certain words aren’t acceptable, from the NAACP to the LGBTQ. So I am adding my voice to the chorus of voices that are trying to tell our society that we are all more alike than we are different…and not just in matters of race, ethnicity or sexual preference.

It’s not okay to call anyone names, people.

People with special needs are people…they are not just a diagnosis or a stereotype. They are people with feelings and they deserve to be respected, by us and by our words.

Stop The Word

Anna G & Anna C

Anna G & Anna C

About two years ago, I made a frustrating mistake, nothing big but one that would create extra work for me. In the moment, I said something out loud, without thinking. Thankfully, there was only one person around to hear my shocking word choice.

“I can’t believe I just did that,” I said. “I’m such a retard.”

The expression on my team member’s face is what made me realize what I had said, as she looked at me with disgust and disappointment. And then, my mind went immediately to the precious faces of the people I love so much and their families. I was instantly ashamed. How could I, of all people, have used that word? And even though I didn’t say it with malice, how hurt would they all be if they knew I had used it?

I was born in 1960 and have lived in Alabama all my life. The “N” word wasn’t part of my family’s vocabulary but I heard it, all the time, all around me. The first time I remember understanding that the “N” word was horrible and hurtful was when I was nine and someone I knew used the word in front of an African-American woman who was a guest in our home. I will never forget the look on the woman’s face … the look of humiliation and silent outrage and hurt. Even though I was only a child and was being raised in the Deep South during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, I grasped the implications of that word because I saw the effect it had on the face of a woman I knew.

The “R” word is every bit as hateful and as hurtful as the “n” word, is every bit as derogatory and pejorative as any ethnic or racial slur people invoke. The definition of “retarded” is: less advanced in mental, physical or social development than is usual for one’s age. The “R” word used to be a medical diagnosis but today, the medical community uses “intellectual disability” and the “R” word has become a convenient slang, something people use to describe others or actions in a deprecatory way. This needs to stop … like yesterday.

When our mothers told us, “Sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt you,” they were just trying to make us feel better. We all know that many times, words hurt even more than punches. You’re so gay; you’re such a Jew; how ghetto is that; you’re so retarded … sure, they’re just words but when used in that context, they are words meant to imply inferiority and insult, words that are used with the intent to throw a punch more powerful than a fist.

Shauna painting in The Connection

Shauna painting in The Connection

Last week, I asked one of the girls in Project UP a question. She looked at me with panic as she frantically searched her mind for the answer. I gave her a hint and when she remembered it, her face was flooded with relief. Because she is intellectually disabled, it is difficult for her to process information as quickly as I can. She has to work ten times harder than I do just to answer a question … or write her name … or say the alphabet. This doesn’t make her dumb or stupid or inferior; it actually makes her smarter than me because she has adapted to her disability by finding other ways to cope with a world that is difficult for her to navigate. She is every bit as valuable, her feelings every bit as important as yours and mine. She told me once that she knows she has, “Something called Down syndrome” and that, “It takes me longer to learn things” but what she doesn’t know is that people use her diagnosis as a way to disparage or insult other people. I hope she never learns that.

One of our social events at The Connection

One of our social events at The Connection

We’ve come a long way with the “N” word…we’re making headway on the negative use of “gay” and “fag” and “homo” … we still have a long way to go with all the other ethnic and racial slurs we hear every day. It’s easy to use a word in a negative way to cast aspersions on a group if we don’t know anyone who belongs to that group but when we put a face with that word, it becomes personal. Before I knew people with special needs, I didn’t think about what it meant to use the “R” word but now that I know so many, I see a face when I hear that word … a child, an adult, a teenager, a parent, a brother, a sister…the faces of the people who would be hurt by the use of the word. Which makes my thoughtless use of the “R” word even worse.

Some members of Project UP got to meet Jane Lynch back in July when they performed at the National Dance Day Gala in Los Angeles. She was sitting on the front row of the theatre and even before the music ended, she started a standing ovation for Project UP that instantly spread throughout the theatre and lasted for nearly six minutes, which made everyone affiliated with Project UP become her biggest fans. Ms. Lynch and actress Lauren Potter (Becky on “Glee”) have a public service announcement that is part of the “Stop the ‘R’ Word” campaign, which makes us love her even more … take a look if you haven’t seen it before:

March 3 is the first day of “Spread The Word To End The Word Week.” Click here to view their website, which is full of information, like suggestions for how to stop the use of the “R” word, powerful videos and testimonials that are enlightening and informative. The site asks us to take a pledge: I pledge and support the elimination of the derogatory use of the r-word from everyday speech and promote the acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities. I’ve taken the pledge and I hope you will too.

Nathan at NRG Dance Convention in Atlanta

Nathan at NRG Dance Convention in Atlanta

David & Goliath, Project UP Style


Nathan at the NRG Competition

Nathan at the NRG Competition

I recently finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and The Art of Battling Giants,” a fascinating book about turning disadvantages into advantages. The book made me think about my students, who are perennial underdogs in most every situation in their lives. The kids in my program are disadvantaged by cognitive, physical or communicative disabilities that slow down their progress in comparison with people who experience “normal” development. We’ve repeatedly put our students in “David and Goliath” situations and regardless of their disadvantages, they come out on top every single time.

Like two weeks ago, when we travelled to Atlanta for the NRG Dance Project’s regional dance competition…over 200 trained dancers ranging in age from 8 to 18, all typically developing and all extremely talented, converged at the Westin Hotel for a weekend of intense master classes and fierce competition. There were 15 of Project UP’s 43 members who made the trip, arriving at the hotel full of excitement and oblivious to the fact that the odds say they didn’t stand a chance of competing successfully with their contemporaries. These are kids who are left out of so many things…just being included is a victory. Don’t get me wrong…if my students know there’s a trophy or a prize involved, they certainly want to win it but winning the trophy is just icing on the cake. They are excited about the process, not the end result.

As we’ve done in the past, we enrolled our students – all at least 14-years-old – in the junior age division with kids ages 8-12, where we thought they would stand a better chance of keeping up with the choreography. Based on previous experience, we knew there would be some raised eyebrows when they walked into their first master class…typical kids in the world of elite competitive dance aren’t used to seeing kids with special needs in their classes, so we decided to meet those eyebrows head on this time. The kids all wore t-shirts to class that had different slogans on them depending on what each kid’s diagnosis is. The slogans were: You’d be happy too, if you had an extra chromosome; I have an extra chromosome and I’m not afraid to use it; The rainbow is also a spectrum; I have autism and I’m awesome; Am I rocking this extra chromosome, or what?; and my personal favorite, “Normal is a dryer setting.” We put their disadvantages out in front, in your face and acknowledged the obvious right off the bat. My staff and I wore t-shirts that said either “Typical,” “Average,” “Same,” “Ordinary,” or “Regular.” The shirts were a smashing success; people stopped all of us all weekend to tell us how much they loved them.

NRG Performance of "We're Not Gonna Take It"

NRG Performance of “We’re Not Gonna Take It”


So, having disarmed everyone with the shirts, the kids set about participating in master classes and the competition. And boy did they ever kill it! While they may not have mastered every combination or understood every instruction, they never stopped trying. At the end of their hip-hop class, they were all flushed and sweating after an hour of hard-hitting choreography. Their typical peers high-fived them, congratulated them, encouraged them and applauded them for their efforts, with Project UP quickly becoming the center of attention everywhere they went.

Project UP blew it out of the water at the actual competition…they executed their dances with enthusiasm and won over the audience with their wide-open performances. While their typical peers may have struggled with nerves, the pressure to perform well and win, and with the backstage chaos that could unhinge even the most seasoned pro, the kids in Project UP were calm, cool and collected. They took the stage, did their job and returned to the audience to cheer on their competition. Of course, both of their performances received sustained standing ovations and most of the audience had tears in their eyes as they applauded. When people see a real “David” in action, going after dreams that appear unattainable, they never fail to be moved.

Anna C & Laura Beth at competition

Anna C & Laura Beth at competition

Both of Project UP’s dances received platinum awards – the highest score awarded to a dance. The final three awards were called the “High Impact Awards” and were given for outstanding overall performance. And wouldn’t you know it? Our “Davids” won a High Impact Award! Before presenting the award, NRG Dance Project Founder Nick Gonzalez told the audience, “Our next High Impact Award is going to a group that has inspired all of us this weekend.” Yes, our students are inspirational…and so are all the other “Davids” in the world. Our kids did what underdogs have done for centuries…they refused to allow their disadvantages to stop them for going for their dreams.

There was a great deal of celebration, lots of hugs, tears of pride from the parents and our staff but as soon as the excitement died down a bit, our kids were ready to pack it in for the night. Great sports that they are, our kids wanted to rest up for the next day’s classes and had no interest in gloating in over their win. I took the staff out to dinner afterwards and I have to admit…we did gloat over the kids’ victory! We toasted the kids, we toasted each other, we toasted the judges for recognizing the power of our underdogs’ performance and we toasted the audience for embracing our underdogs (yes, we had quite a few celebratory drinks with which to toast!). We all felt quite full of ourselves because we are just so dang proud of our students and so proud that our program has given them a platform from which they can show the world that they can do anything they are given the chance to try.

Dinner at the NRG dance competition

Dinner at the NRG dance competition

Like “Davids” usually do, our students were back in class the following Tuesday, hard at work preparing for their next performance. Besides making sure that we had properly – and prominently – displayed the High Impact Award banner they were given, the kids were back to business, their victory just another fun memory to them. As they continue to have successful public performances, the odds will tip in their favor – they will always be underdogs but they will narrow the gap between them and their typical peers. As they continue to succeed on an even playing field with their “normal” peers, folks will begin to realize that normal, well you know…normal is a dryer setting.

Warning: Thoughts on Labels

Atlanta Cami and money

Cami handing me the $2 she caught & donated to Merrimack Hall

Labels. They are everywhere we look…on our food, on our medicines, on our clothing. Labels are descriptive, informative, sometimes even life-saving but they are also limiting and narrow. They can help us navigate the world and they can help us make informed choices but labels also prevent us from forming our own opinions and being open to new things. When labels are assigned to people, they can predispose us to judgment and can prevent us from seeing someone for who they really are.

The students in my visual and performing arts programs have to live with labels that are assigned to them by our society…relatively innocuous ones like different, disabled or developmentally delayed and offensive ones like retarded, odd or weird. These labels are based on the diagnosis they’ve been given. Roughly 20% of the US population has special needs and for them, a diagnosis is a useful thing to have – a diagnosis gives them access to services that improve their lives, can prepare organizations like mine to meet their needs and can help educators assess them for appropriate placements. But the labels that accompany the diagnoses are never useful.

Our society claims to celebrate diversity, to embrace the differences between us and yet we rely on labels to categorize, stereotype and pigeon-hole each other. I want to know why. Is it just convenient? Does it make it simpler for us to avoid people or things that might make us uncomfortable? Do we label folks so we can decide who to let in and who to exclude from our lives?

I’ve had to learn a lot of acronyms over the past six years like PDDNOS – pervasive developmental delay not otherwise specified. This is a mouthful that basically means that a person is not developing at the rate of his or her typical peers and their symptoms don’t match up to any existing diagnosis. Some of my students don’t even have this diagnosis – some just don’t learn or develop the way most of us do and there’s no way to explain why. Not having a diagnosis presents its own challenges to my students and their families. Even one as vague as PDDNOS is better than no diagnosis at all.

Cami performing at our 2013 holiday showcase.

Cami performing at our 2013 holiday showcase.

Take Cami, for example. Cami is 14-years-old and has been with JSAP for five years. She attends an alternative school where she is in a classroom equivalent to a 5th or 6th grade class in a typical school. There is no medical explanation for the delays in Cami’s development so, like a lot of people, she falls into a category that’s basically like, “We don’t know what’s wrong, we just know that something is.” In the absence of a diagnosis, the labels kick in on overdrive.

I could use a lot of labels to describe Cami that tell you a lot about who she is – teenager; female; brunette; visual artist; stage performer. I can’t even let myself think of the negative labels that some people might use to describe or categorize Cami. I thought I knew Cami pretty well but last weekend I discovered something about her that I didn’t know – something that has given me a new, better label for Cami. Cami is a philanthropist.

Cami and her teammates in Project UP were in Atlanta at the NRG Dance Project Competition. During the awards ceremony at the end of the evening, NRG founders Nick Gonzalez and Rustin Matthew announced that they were about to do something unprecedented and exciting. The 200+ dancers who were sitting on the stage leaned forward in anticipation, holding their breath to hear what this great thing would be. Nick and Rustin told the kids to look to the ceiling and count down from five. After everyone counted down “5, 4, 3, 2, 1,” 2,000 $1 bills floated down from the ceiling! As it rained money on them, the dancers reached for as many bills as they could grab. No one was too aggressive about it but it was clear that all 200 kids on that stage sure did want to catch some of that free money.

When the competition was over and the last award had been handed out, Cami found her way to me, holding out two $1 bills and smiling sweetly.

“Wow,” I said. “Congratulations, Cami! I’m so excited for you that you caught two dollars!”

“I caught it for you,” Cami answered.

“For me?”

“Yes ma’am. I wanted to catch some money for you to put in the donation box at Merrimack Hall.”

Knowing Cami the way I do, I know it took a lot of guts for her to join in the fray and attempt to catch those dollars. I’m sure she was overwhelmed by the noise, the crowd, the other kids who were grabbing for the same prize she was. Other kids were probably trying to catch the money because it was fun, or because they are competitive, or because they wanted to buy a frappe at Starbucks. Not Cami…she wanted to catch some money so she could give it to me to use at Merrimack Hall.

According to Webster’s, a philanthropist is “a person who seeks to promote the welfare of others, especially by the generous donation of money to good causes.” That label fits Cami – and many of her teammates who have asked for donations to our program in lieu of birthday gifts – much better than of the other labels she has been given. Until we get to the point where we actually do celebrate our differences, wouldn’t it be nice if the labels we gave to each other described who we are on the inside instead of what color our skin is or where we worship or what our sexual preference is or what we can or can’t do?

The people with special needs that I know live with labels that predispose others to judge their abilities before they ever have a chance to show someone who they are. In an effort to provide services, mainstream and include, our society tells us right off the bat that a person with a disability is different from the norm – physically disabled or developmentally disabled are the first labels my students are given and those labels follow them for the rest of their lives, everywhere they go and in everything they do. It didn’t take me long to realize that none of these labels is accurate and if you spend a little time around people with special needs you’ll realize it too. Once you start thinking about the negative nature of labels for one group of people, you’ll find yourself noticing the negative nature of labels for any group of people.

Labels on people should come with their own warning label, something like, “WARNING – this label is not adequate to describe the person it is being assigned to and is possibly being used to facilitate exclusion, bias and discrimination.” If a label carries with it a negative connotation, we should mark that label “expired.”

Final Rehearsal

DFF Thanks Photo

We got the news on July 11 that Project UP was invited to perform at the National Dance Day Gala in LA. 12 days later we’ve raised money to pay for most of the expenses, have nailed down air fare and booked hotel rooms, have arranged for ground transportation, have coordinated the details for 23 people to travel together. We have re-staged choreography and rehearsed for hours and hours. We have created new costumes, rented tuxedos and bought ball gowns. The big moment is almost here!

Everyone is very excited, to say the least! I’m still in a state of shock that on Saturday night, kids in the little program I founded five years ago will be dancing on the same bill as dancers from some of the most prestigious organizations in the country. To think that we started with 10 kids and 10 volunteers in October 2008 and here we are, July 2013 – dancing in one of the most illustrious venues in the world!

The final rehearsal this afternoon was wonderful and to top it off, the kids from Element made goodie bags for the kids from Project UP – little things to amuse them on the long plane ride out there. Just another example of how thoughtful – and selfless – the teens who volunteer with us are. And talented? These five kids from Element are incredible!

We are about to have our Bon Voyage Party – a final full dress rehearsal in front of a home crowd here at Merrimack Hall. We’re having lemonade and cookies and hope to be home by 8:30, since we have to be at the airport by 5:00 tomorrow morning!

So now, it’s time to sit back and enjoy the experience of a lifetime!

Hollywood, Here We Come!

Top to bottom: Peyton Davis, Connor Furber, Zach Hulgan, Shelby Pearsall, Katie Slaton, Erika Davis, Anna Chilton, Carolyn Snoddy, Haleigh Briggs, Anna Giardini, Sarah Katherine Parker

Top to bottom: Peyton Davis, Connor Furber, Zach Hulgan, Shelby Pearsall, Katie Slaton, Erika Davis, Anna Chilton, Carolyn Snoddy, Haleigh Briggs, Anna Giardini, Sarah Katherine Parker

These 10 dancers are about to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And us adults are in for quite a good time ourselves! In 48 hours, we will be in Los Angeles where these kids have been invited to perform at the Dizzy Feet Foundation’s annual National Dance Day Celebration Gala at The Music Center. These dancers from Project UP and Element Dance Company will share the bill with dancers from American Ballet Theatre, the stars of Dancing With The Stars and So You ThinkYou Can Dance, Complexions Contemporary Dance Company and professionals from every genre of dance.

In the audience will be a veritable who’s who in the entertainment and dance world – celebrities of every sort. I’m convinced that when the curtain falls Saturday night, July 27, the audience won’t be talking about the ballerinas or the professional ballroom dancers. They will be talking about the 10 kids in this picture and the dance piece, “Change the World.”

It was just about this time last year that I got the idea to stage this dance number and enlisted Hayley Henderson, Artistic Director of the Johnny Stallings Arts Program and owner of Element Dance Company to put it together. In the past year, this dance has been performed at Merrimack Hall’s Evening of Dance, at the NRG Dance Project in Atlanta, at the Alabama State Dance Championships (where it won First Place Overall and a platinum score) and at our annual spring recital. Each time it’s been performed, there has been a thunderous standing ovation and an audience with tears of joy in their eyes. What makes this piece so extraordinary and moving? It’s simple…”Change the World” uses dance to show that we are all more alike than we are different, that there’s no such thing as “different” and that people with special needs are only limited by the labels society chooses to assign them.

The kids are very excited – more like elated! Today, we sat in a circle and talked about what sorts of questions we might be asked while we are in LA and practiced what our answers to those questions should be. We want to be sure to thank the Dizzy Feet Foundation for this opportunity every time we can. We want to be sure to use people-first language. We want to be sure that we remember this opportunity is all about Project UP and kids with special needs, not about typical teenagers who are amazing dancers. Each teenager spoke from their heart when I posed questions to them like, “Why do you like to dance?,” “What does being in this dance mean to you?,” and “What do you hope people take away from your performance?”

Of course, Katie said she wants people to know she’s a star and Anna G. said she wants people to smile and be happy when they watch her dance. Claire said she hopes our performance will show people that kids with special needs can do anything they are given the chance to do and that she hopes our performance will inspire other organizations to include people with special needs in their programming. Melissa said she hopes our programs will jump to the national spotlight. Hayley said she hopes people will see that teaching dance to kids with special needs is no different than teaching dance to typical kids. Connor just said, “Bool-ya!”

While I want people to see how effective our program is and replicate it, what I also hope they see is that when you do something good for someone else, it comes back to you – in spades – every time. The five dancers from Element have donated their time – hours and hours of it – for years, helping kids with special needs participate in dance. They did this never expecting anything for themselves. And now, they are dancing in front of the most influential people in the dance business in one of the most storied and respected venues in the world – a dream come true for a young dancer! Who knows what opportunities this will bring to their careers as dancers and all because they were selfless enough to want to share their love of dance with kids who are routinely marginalized and left out?!

This is going to be a truly remarkable experience! I will be blogging daily so I hope you will follow along to read about our adventures!

The Opposite of Bullying

Best friends Abbey & Darby

Best friends Abbey & Darby

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.

Darby in 2010

Darby in 2010

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!