We were sitting off to the side. I’m glad because if I’d been sitting anywhere else I would not have seen her. The curtain opened and then, one at a time, students came and stood, confidently, at the front on the stage. They had nearly finished, one full, strong line of kids, all looking excited and confident. Some giving in to the urge to wave to family and friends. Hands waved back and occasionally a “whoop” from a small group hidden in the darkness of the gym. Then, she came.
It was hard to see her because, although she held on to the arm of another student, she walked behind her. The final few students came, and even though she was hidden behind the student whose arm she held onto, they left her a space. They left her a chance to change her mind and come out of hiding. She didn’t.
As I said, I could see her because of the angle of my view. She was the only kid with a disability that I saw in the pageant, but there may have been others with invisible disabilities. She had Down Syndrome and as the kids began to sing, she sang too, or, I should say, I saw her lips move, I don’t know if she voiced the words, what I do know is that she joined in. I wished her forward. She stayed hidden.
Later when we went upstairs to see Ruby and Sadie’s classroom, I ran into her in the hallway with her mother. Here she walked with the confidence she didn’t show on stage. Here she didn’t need her mother’s arm. I slowed my chair and looked right at her and said, “I saw you on stage, you were great.” She smiled in response.
Her mother said, “What do you say?”
She answered, “I know.”
That cracked me up. What a great response. “Inside that girl,” I thought to myself, “is a bundle of confidence. I hope I see it at next year’s pageant.”
Joe hadn’t been with me when I had the brief and funny encounter with the young woman with Down Syndrome. This morning, over tea, I was telling him about it and laughing. As I was doing so I was picturing the event happening. When I tell stories like this I like to picture the scene and then simply describe what I’m seeing. So, I saw her all over again. I saw her hiding behind the student. Then, I saw her again, later in the hallway. I was able to put the two pictures beside each other. One a shy girl on stage. One a confident girl with her mother in the hallway.
I wondered if I had attributed her shyness to simply, her shyness. Had I seen her out of context of her disability? Should I ever see anyone with a disability outside the disability context? In the context of disability what do I know? I know, and there’s a lot of research to back this up, that she is the most likely in that school to be teased, bullied and excluded. I’m not saying that that’s what’s happening there. Not at all. I’m just saying that the likelihood is, if there is any form of social violence (otherwise called bullying) she’s at the top of list in terms of mathematical likelihood.
I also know, and this is from personal experience, that she is likely, in all social or public situations to be stared at. To be looked at with harsh, or judging, or pitying eyes. She will come to see the eyes of others as the most common weapon used against her self esteem and her enjoyment of simply being out. She, by virtue of her disability and her difference, is going to wish, on many occasions during her lifetime, to simply disappear to simply not be seen.
There was a space left for her by the other students. A space where she could have stepped into but chose not to … was this a freely made choice … was it a choice made out of shyness … was it a decision made out of a learned response to the eyes of strangers … I don’t know.
There was a space, where she could have been.
There was a space, left for her.
Let’s tell the truth, given that most people with Down Syndrome are freely chosen to be ‘away’ rather than ‘here’ by parents making the decision, there are spaces in playgrounds and classroom and workplaces. There are spaces that we can’t see because no one holds them. She, she could step into an empty space, left for her in anticipation of a different decision.
A different decision.
That’s what I hope she makes next year.
A different decision.
That’s what I’m thankful her mother made.
But we can never forget that that shy girl, hiding behind a fellow student, lives in a world that believes that that space should never be filled, that opportunity never offered … and that’s a hard world to live in. That’s a world where, it’s reasonable to make the decision, for the moment, to hide safely tucked away. To disappear.
(um, that didn’t end up short … oops)