The 5th grade teachers at Rachel’s school invited me to come and speak to all the 5th graders one more time before school was out. I always go at the beginning of the year and talk about Down syndrome. The past few years Rachel has helped me, and we have done a PowerPoint and invited the kids to be on her Step Up for Down Syndrome team. The teachers thought it might be good to re-visit the topic but to take it a bit further since they are entering middle school and are struggle with lots of character issues and temptations. I decided to take a slightly new direction. I titled the presentation “What it Means to be a People First Person.” The outline started out by discussing character traits we as a society value (respect, responsibility, kindness, citizenship, caring, kindness and trustworthiness). Then, we discussed how we treat anyone whether they dress differently, smell bad, look different, come from a different culture or they are differently-abled. We discussed that there were different ways people could be differently-abled and that we were going to focus on intellectual or cognitive disabilities, what that means, and specifically what it means when a person has Down syndrome. We had great session. They had a ton of questions and ended up missing their final recess but with no complaints. The two most interesting questions were: 1) “If she has an extra chromosome, shouldn’t that make her smarter?” (The implication is that more is smarter. I didn’t say it but in many ways, people with Down syndrome are smarter!) 2) “Can’t you just take the extra chromosome out?”
The final two things we discussed were using people first and preferred language. Do you? It is never a Down syndrome person but always a person with Down syndrome. It is never a “R-word” person but a person with an intellectual disability. We discussed cyberspace and how texting and Facebook could create a ton of hurt for others. The quote I used to talk about People First Language was by Mark Twain, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightening bug.” Finally, we ended with my talking about Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and the famous quote “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.” I told them that there would be lots of people on the well-travelled road. They might not taunt people or bully others but they wouldn’t speak up when someone else did. They wouldn’t stop someone who was tricking Rachel into doing something wrong. They would not stand up for society’s injustices. Then, there would be the road that not many people would take. It would be the one for those who would stand up, speak out and do the right thing when no one else was looking. Which road will you take? Which road have you taken? It’s not too late to change directions.
To wrapu it up, I talked about Rachel’s friend George. George became Rachel’s friend in Kindergarten (Bartlett, TN). He was the smartest kid in the class, and he and Rachel had a very special bond. He was and is her friend. We try to see him when we visit Memphis. What made George such a good friend? He treated Rachel with respect and dignity. He didn’t baby her but he knew when she needed help and he knew to ask her if she wanted help. He knew to tell others to stop teasing or interpret what she was saying. We moved from Memphis to KC after Rachel’s second grade year. The last night we saw him. before we left, he threw his arms around me and said, “You take care of Rachel because I won’t be there to take care of her.” I sobbed. George took the road less travelled at a young age. I am thankful for the Georges in our lives.