‘Tis the season to bring love and joy into the world – and here’s one of the loveliest stories of the year…
It’s a story that begins in October 2008, when the economy is in a state of collapse; the culture is in crisis, and faith in humanity – at least, my faith in humanity – is at an all-time low.
It is precisely at this time that my next-door neighbor, Annie Jennings, comes home from high school bearing an orange rose. She presents this flower to her mother, Ellen, with the announcement that she is one of the “Sweet 16,” a member of Libertyville High School’s Homecoming Court.
Annie is not quite 18 years old, a high school senior with stick-straight, sandy blond hair, glasses and a big smile. We hire her to feed our cat whenever we head out of town and we leave knowing our cat is in very good hands. So when I learn of her selection as a member of the homecoming court, I am intrigued. This is the girl who watches my cat, after all.
Ellen is curious about what it means to be a member of the “Sweet 16.” Turns out that the senior class has voted, and Annie is one of a select group of girls to be considered for the Homecoming Queen. Within a week, the entire student population will choose one girl from this group to be the queen. Usually, the Homecoming Court has 16 girls; this year there is a tie, which means there are 17 girls being considered for this honor.
Ellen is a practical woman, a librarian who drives a Honda Fit economy car. The desire to be a homecoming queen has never been hers. Still, she is happy for Annie and vaguely proud that her daughter has been plucked from obscurity in this way.
She becomes concerned, however, when Annie assures her that she will win the title.
And, frankly, when Ellen tells me this, I’m also concerned. As much as I like Annie, she doesn’t at all fit in with my preconceived notions of what a Homecoming Queen is. I just assume that this is an honor that the pretty girl wins, the popular girl, the cheerleader. Not girls like Annie.
Annie doesn’t fit my notion of homecoming queen because she has Down syndrome. She was born with trisomy 21, and has 47 chromosomes, instead of 46.
In our culture, we strive for the bigger car, the bigger house, more stuff, but in human biology, more is not better when it comes to chromosomes. The extra chromosome that causes Down Syndrome brings with it a number of physical traits and attributes specific to this condition, including an upward slant to the eyes, reduced muscle tone and developmental delays that can range from mild to severe.
Ellen and her husband John discovered Annie had Down’s the day she was born. That moment of joy, the arrival of a beloved baby, was, for John and Ellen, tempered with worries about Annie’s future. All of the expectations new parents have for a new baby were shifted, altered and diminished when the Jennings found out Annie had Down’s. And like many children born with Down’s, Annie had some serious medical issues that required multiple surgeries by the time she was seven.
Ellen will be the first to tell you that caring for an infant with Down’s can be overwhelming. Annie is the second daughter in the family; her big sister Laura is four years older, a college senior now, planning for a career in special education.
Ellen knows what it is like to have a “normal” child. She knows the joy that comes from watching a baby reach the traditional milestones within the traditional time frame; she knows the absolute delight that comes from watching a baby discover smiling, rolling over, crawling, talking, walking and reading - all at the right time.
When Annie was a baby, these goals seemed remote and impossible.
“You know, I cried for the first two years of Annie’s life,” says Ellen. “I thought that for the rest of my life, the only thing I would have time for would be to care for Annie.”
When Annie was two, however, Ellen found solace from an unlikely source for this liberal Democrat: a column by the conservative political columnist George Will. Despite their political differences, Ellen discovered that she shares one thing in common with Will – they both have a child with Down syndrome.
In this particular column, Jon Will’s Aptitude, Will talks about the complexities and the joys of Jon’s life as a young adult with Down’s. In describing Jon’s inherent gentleness, Will is unwilling to attribute this character trait to a genetic malfunction. Instead, Will says, “let’s just say that Jon is an adornment to a world increasingly stained by anger acted out.”
“Reading George Will’s column, I realized that perhaps there could be more to Annie’s life than being just “special needs.” And I realized that perhaps my life could involve more than exclusively caring for Annie,” says Ellen. “George Will certainly has a full and rich life, and I began to see that it could be possible for me as well.”
And from that moment forward, things changed for Ellen. She reclaimed her future. She worked with the district to prepare Annie for school and, once Annie started in kindergarten, she worked with the school to make sure Annie got the services she needed. When Annie was in school full time, Ellen then got a job as a librarian at the local library.
The Importance of Inclusion
Which brings us to that week in October, when Annie was firm in her belief that she would be voted the LHS homecoming queen.
“How did they even know to vote for her in the first place, to make her one of the Sweet 16?” I ask Ellen.
I have the outsider’s perspective when it comes to popularity. I had a small, close-knit group of friends in high school, but being known in a wider sense by the larger group was beyond my skill. I’m quite impressed that people knew Annie well enough to vote for her in the initial selection that made up the Sweet 16.
“I don’t know,” Ellen tells me at first. “All I know is that whenever I walk the hallways with her, everyone seems to know who she is.”
Later, when she has time to think about it, Ellen revises her answer. “We are lucky because we live in a school district that believes in inclusion – believes in placing students like Annie in mainstream classrooms. We moved here for that reason.”
When she entered kindergarten, Annie was placed in a traditional classroom – not a special education facility. From the moment she became a student, she mingled with “the normies” as she likes to call the mainstream students.
As the curriculum became more specialized in high school, Annie continued to mix with “the normies” through a school-sponsored program called Best Buddies.
Julia Bleck is a senior at Libertyville High School and like Annie, a member of the Homecoming Court.
“I first met Annie a long time ago in Religious Education classes through our church, but I hadn’t been in class with her again until this year, when we had gym together,” says Julia. “I had such a great experience that it made me want to join Best Buddies this year. That’s where traditional students get to hang out with students like Annie. I think having a group like Best Buddies allows kids to be more understanding about their peers – and more accepting of everyone.”
Janet Brownlie is the principal at Adler Park elementary school, and was there when Annie started in kindergarten.
“In my mind, Annie is the 'poster child’ for inclusion as her presence in the school and classroom and all that she has achieved is what we wish for every child,” says Brownlie. “She has parents who have given her every opportunity to feel she can achieve, be happy, be involved and be like any other typical girl her age. The classroom environment enabled her to have a differentiated curriculum when needed, yet recognize that others also had challenges and maybe she wasn't that different.”
But Annie is different. She has Down’s. And she approaches the upcoming coronation ceremony like it is a done deal – she is absolutely convinced that she is going to win.
What do you say when your child so firmly believes in something you know cannot possibly be true? Ellen and John did their best to prepare Annie for the inevitable – for the fact that someone else most likely would be crowned.
“There are 16 other girls, Annie,” Ellen would say, and Annie would respond with her usual blend of confidence and exuberance. “But mom, everyone tells me they’re gonna vote for me.”
The Queen Is Crowned
The big day finally arrives. Ellen and John accompany Annie to the Homecoming Assembly in the gym.
“As we walked in the gym with Annie, everyone was yelling her name,” says John. “I was really surprised at how many people knew who she was.”
Ellen selects seats near the door. She’s not sure how Annie will react if she doesn’t win and wants an easily reached escape route.
“The first thing they did was to announce the top eight contenders. And Annie was one of them,” said Ellen.
So now Annie sits in the front row, surrounded by the pretty girls, the ones you expect to win.
“The senior class president did this little act where he ran up and down, pretending to place the crown on each girl’s head,” says Ellen.
Finally the president stops to crown the queen – and he stops just behind Annie, and he places the crown on Annie’s head. The gymnasium erupts in applause and cheers. And the cheers are deafening: “Annie! Annie! Annie!” And Annie’s screams of joy are among the loudest.
Ellen is videotaping the proceedings, and at this point, the camera gets really shaky. The camerawoman is crying ¬– Ellen is crying – just like she did in those early years when life as Annie’s mom promised to hold only struggle.
Only on this day in October, when Annie is crowned the 2008 LHS Homecoming Queen, Ellen is crying tears of joy. She’s crying because life has wonderfully failed to meet those earlier expectations; it has in fact surpassed them in ways Ellen never thought possible back in those dark, early days, before she really knew who Annie was.
“Inclusion has been such a great thing for Annie,” said Ellen. “The experience of being in a classroom with regular students gave everyone the chance to see how similar they all are. There is absolutely no way Annie would have been in this position if it had not been for inclusion.”
Julia Bleck also thinks inclusion makes a difference. “I think it really showed character in our school and proof that Best Buddies works when Annie was nominated and chosen for Homecoming Queen,” says Bleck. “In some places, she might not have even gone to school with me. Being with Annie as part of Best Buddies gave me an understanding of how all the buddies are alike. We all have the same interests in hobbies. When people don’t get the opportunity to be together – there isn’t a chance for students to find this out.”
John Jennings was happily surprised for many reasons. “I went to an all-boys high school, so we didn’t have anything like this,” says John. “The biggest surprise for me was to see everyone at the school be so generous. I went into this thinking that the girls on the court would be tolerant of Annie – but they were genuinely excited for her when she won.”
Janet Brownlie, Annie’s former principal, knew that Annie had a chance to win the crown. “When I heard Annie was on the Homecoming Court, I had an inkling that she might be our next town Queen as I can't remember any time that Annie didn't share a smile, a friendly hi and many hugs to everyone she met,” says Brownlie. “No wonder she was voted to represent Libertyville High School at Homecoming!”
None of us ever knows what the future holds. This much is certain – in June, Annie and her peers will graduate into a society that seems on the verge of collapse. The Class of 2009 has been bombarded this year with evidence of impending doom – an economy in a freefall, a political system that seems to answer only the needs of the special interests, a culture seemingly propped up by an insatiable desire to acquire things, no matter what the cost.
During this time of instability and chaos, Libertyville High School held an election for Homecoming Queen, a longstanding tradition with the school. It was an election where any of the girls in the Homecoming Court would have made a wonderful Queen.
But in choosing their queen this year, the Libertyville High School students chose hope. They chose happiness. They chose Annie.
Maureen O’Connor is president of the LHS student council – and has known Annie since they were in the same class together in 3rd grade.
“Annie is always smiling – and she’s never said a mean word about anyone,” says Maureen. “That’s why everyone loves Annie. I knew when she was nominated that she was going to win.”
Annie still glows when she talks about what it was like to be crowned: “It was great! It made me happy – really happy. I love it. I love being a student at this school because I feel loved.”
“While on the Homecoming Court, it was a whirlwind of a week – a pizza party, the parade, hanging out at the football game – and I loved being able to share this special experience with Annie,” says Julia Bleck. “She is a wonderful girl and I’m so glad she’s received credit for being such a great person.”
“I’m a senior, so this is my fourth homecoming celebration,” Maureen O’Connor says. “And in my four years here, the gym has never been so loud as when Annie was crowned. The whole school just went wild for Annie.”
Annie has many hopes for the future. She hopes that life after high school includes a job. She wants to marry her boyfriend.
I have my own hopes for the future. I hope that all of us get to experience the joy everyone felt in the gym the day Annie was crowned queen. There was so much joy in that room on that day! Annie felt it; her parents felt it; the 16 other girls in the Homecoming Court felt it; you can see it in their faces in the video Ellen shot; you can hear it in the cheers.
In this world that, to paraphrase George Will, is not just stained but horribly damaged from “anger acted out,” I find I’ve learned a lot from Annie, my neighbor with Down’s. I’ve learned that our expectations can sometimes – thankfully – be impossible to meet, that life can surprise us with brilliance and joy from an unexpected source – and that, if you’re lucky like me, royalty can be found living right next door.
Annie Jennings, getting ready to go to the homecoming dance, holding the autographed football that the LHS football team gave her. Photo by Chip Williams.
To see Annie's crowning moment, check out the local news coverage of her coronation:
http://cltv.trb.com/video/?autoStart=true&topVideoCatNo=default&clipId=3042619">WGN News story
http://www.myfoxchicago.com/myfox/pages/Home/Detail?contentId=7675909&version=2&locale=EN-US&layoutCode=VSTY&pageId=1.1.1">Fox News (Chicago affiliate)