A parent at our school brought donuts to the school staff room today, to remind us that today is World Down Syndrome Day. I have seen this parent with her little son. I've wanted to talk to her, but haven't had the courage. My heart is so full every time I see her kindergartener. So, today I approached her, and told her how seeing her son at school makes my day. She explained that he is the first student with Down Syndrome to ever be enrolled in our school district.
I thought back to my grandma homeschooling my Uncle Sherm, because he wasn't allowed to attend school. I once watched her patiently show him how to endorse a check, over and over, until he understood. She prepared him for life in the real world, because no one else would.
I think about Uncle Sherm almost daily. I got to know him well during the summers when I had long visits to my grandma's house. There are so many things that I learned from spending time with him. Here's a short little list:
-I learned to be a better listener. It was sometimes hard to tell what he was saying, especially at the beginning of vacation, when I hadn't been around him for a while. So I had to focus on what he was saying. I learned to watch his lips as they formed words and to concentrate. This is a strategy that I use all of the time at my job, when parents and students are speaking to me in a language that I don't understand well.
-I learned to feel sick when people purposely hurt someone who is defenseless. Sometimes people would tease Sherm. I remember watching the hurt on his face when this happened. It made me realize, as a kid, that there are people who should be off limits. They are people who do no harm, and so, should not be harmed.
-I learned about generosity. Sherm let me borrow his bicycle any time I asked. Any time. And, he never asked where I was taking it. That old black bike took me all over the county, through fields, and across many gravel farm roads.
-I learned to drive. My first experience driving was in Sherm's old purple truck, as a seven year old. He pushed the pedals and let me steer.
-I learned to laugh. Watching Sherm exuberantly wave his arms like a conductor, in time to the theme song when "Bonanza" came on t.v. was hilarious. And, he did it every single time. I think that he might have been the Cartwright family's biggest fan.
-I learned that what we do for others makes a difference. When Sherm passed away, he was living in a care home. His only possession was his suitcase. The lettering on the outside was in my Aunt Mildred's crisp handwriting. After he died, she gave me the suitcase to keep. Inside were all of Uncle Sherm's belongings. It was so humble and modest, after a lifetime spent here on earth. There were some pictures, and there was a small bundle of letters that I had casually written to him during college. I didn't really think much of writing them. When I saw them in the suitcase, every single letter, I realized that receiving them had meant a lot to him. I was ashamed that I hadn't sent more.
-I learned about making art. Some brilliant person gave Sherm a camera. He spent a great deal of his spare time, taking photos of every single farm animal in the county. All of the pictures looked the exact same to all of us. But, when he was questioned about certain photos, he could describe each animal. He felt a passion for photography. There were many thick photo albums brimming with cows and sheep. Lesson: If you love something, do it. Don't let other stuff get in the way.
-I learned to speak up. When Sherm was mad, by God, he was mad. He spoke his mind. He was never afraid to let his feelings be known.
-I learned to love animals. Sherm loved animals. I watched him spend a great deal of time with his dog, Toddler. There were many one-sided conversations. He rehearsed conversations with people, or just voiced his concerns. Toddler was a sympathetic listener. I feel the same way about my dog.
Happy World Down Syndrome Day to you all. The mashed potatoes are on the house (they were Sherm's favorite)...