After Annie was born 23 years ago with Down syndrome, I cried. A lot.
I cried because all the books we bought after her diagnosis were filled with scary medical, social, and academic problems she might have. I cried for all the things she wouldn't be able to do -- go to college, drive a car, have children or do any of the things that I believed make a life meaningful.
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Back when I went to school, the "special" kids went into a separate class and never mingled with the rest of us. They seemed so different and almost foreign. My cute and cuddly baby's future seemed dark and scary.
Gradually, the tears stopped and life got busy. Since her elementary school practiced inclusive education, Annie was educated in the same regular classroom as her peers. Annie watched her classmates and worked as hard as she could to keep up and did well. By middle school, the classes got harder for Annie, and she spent more time in special education classes and by the time she reached Libertyville High School, she was in one of those separate classes for special kids, to my great disappointment.
Despite my concerns about her academic progress or lack thereof, Annie loved high school. One Friday in October of her senior year, 2008, Annie came home with a carnation and a wild story about being picked as one of the Sweet Sixteen for Homecoming. She was jumping with excitement and my heart was sinking fast. I remembered my own school days when, as a joke, the most unpopular kids would be nominated for some class office and everyone would snicker and laugh at their expense. I quickly called a friend at the school who assured me that yes, Annie was truly well-liked by many students and had been legitimately chosen by her classmates to be part of the Sweet Sixteen -- sixteen senior girls, one of whom would be elected Queen and crowned in front of the entire student body the following Friday. OMG.
When Coronation Day arrived, my husband John and I were bundles of nerves. We had spent the week talking to Annie about the fact that just ONE girl would be Queen and giving her advice about how to be a gracious loser. Yet Annie would have none of it. She kept telling us "think positive and stop harshing my mellow."
At the assembly, the sixteen candidates were each escorted across the gym to a stage by their fathers to a song each girl had selected. Annie chose Hakuna Matata from The Lion King. John basically followed Annie as she did her own little dance, waving and blowing kisses to the hundreds of cheering kids seated in the gym.
After the sixteen candidates were seated on a stage, the class president, accompanied by a sustained drum roll, held a crown aloft and strolled back and forth behind them teasing them and us for what seemed like an eternity.
When he put the crown on Annie's head, the gym erupted with cheers. The other candidates on the stage gathered around Annie, hugging her and smiling. Then the entire student body started chanting 'An-nie! An-nie! An-nie!' and once again I cried.
When the excitement finally ended after all the Homecoming Weekend festivities and I had time to reflect, I was left with two thoughts.
First, maybe, just maybe, if any of Annie's classmates are ever in a position to hire someone with cognitive impairment, they might remember Annie and give that person a chance. Because they got to know her as a real person, not just one of those "special kids" tucked out of the way.
Secondly, had I any inkling of what Annie's life would be like when she was born, I wouldn't have shed a single tear.
Today, Annie lives at home and works at the Great Lakes Naval Base helping clean and sweep up the galleys during the recruits' dinner shift. She's happy, employed and a taxpaying citizen. Isn't that what we all want for our grown children?
Ellen Jennings, of Libertyville, is a mother of two and the teen librarian at Cook Park Library in Libertyville.