My eyes shot to my daughter, Charli, upon hearing her shout: "Wow! Cool!" her fists raised to further express delight in the scene. My wife and I have desperately tried to protect our little girl from violence on television, but this time we slipped. In an unguarded moment, two vehicles had crashed onscreen and one had burst into flames. Typical of any teenager, Charli thought this was just one very, like, cool thing. You know?
While she is physically a normal 18-year-old, Down Syndrome has made Charli's mental age more typical of a 4-year-old. Charli would be preparing for college this year if she were a typical adolescent. Instead, she will pass this episode of life with no such plans.
We realize it, but the fact does not sadden us. That is because we realized a greater truth a few years ago. The job of every kid is to outdo his or her parents. While Charli and her peers may not have done so scholastically, they have proven that they have exceeded all expectations ethically and morally.
Special education students lead lives which give lessons for all their contemporaries, if attention is only paid to the details. Education, in my opinion, comes in two forms. The one aspect most concentrated on is the scholastic endeavor, which prepares us for financial security by helping us select and follow our career plans. Equally important is what one 1960s radical expressed when he said, "Teach me how to live, not how to make a living."
One day Charli was placed in time-out for some infraction of the school rules. We received a call, naturally, and had to meet with the teacher. I could not help but suppress a chuckle when told that Charli, after being placed in isolation, was frustrated only shortly. Then, she did something that really was disrespectful of the situation: She took off her socks, placed them over her hands, and began entertaining herself and other students with her makeshift "puppets."
The incident was a perfect illustration of "when life hands you lemons, make lemonade." When life is rough, Charli never fails to use her endless imagination to adapt, reconcile and be content. She makes it apparent that God has given us every tool we need in order to enjoy life, but we must implement those tools ourselves. It is only one of many lessons taught me by my daughter.
Most special needs children put complete and total energy into everything they attempt. Born already behind in the race of life, they stay determined to win and never give up the fight. Reflection on this makes me realize how little effort we use in our own lives, and how much valuable time we waste trying to achieve perfection instead of enjoying our accomplishments. I wonder just how better life would be if all of us were as conscientious and determined in the face of adversity.
A few years ago, while running in a Special Olympics race, Charli's friend Ashlyn fell. Anyone attending that day received a valuable lesson in teamwork that I have never forgotten. Charli, with every other runner, suddenly stopped running for the finish line, returned as a group and helped Ashlyn to her feet. To the applause of everyone watching, the group then ran to the finish line together. In front of hundreds of witnesses, these kids demonstrated that true teamwork comes out of concern for your teammates - not policies and regulations.
These observations demonstrate that special needs children possess a value that the rest of the world would be remiss in not redeeming. Their contemporaries can, and rightly should, take pride in scholastic achievements upon their high school graduation.
Special education students may march proudly forward with the assurance that they have also surpassed all expectations of their parents. The magnificent richness of their human spirit should be a source of pride, an incomparable and golden illustration of what humankind should strive to become.
Charli and her classmates graduate this month from the school of life - honor students of the God who created them. They have been given the ability to stay forever young in mind and soul, an ability that the rest of humanity strives a lifetime to obtain.
For all of Charli's childhood friends who graduate this year, let us make this sincere wish:
"May God bless and keep you always,
May your wishes all come true,
May you always do for others
And let others do for you.
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung,
May you stay forever young,"
- Bob Dylan, "Forever Young"
(Dennis Jones is a Martinez resident.)
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