A few weeks into this school year, my first-grader came home talking about a boy. It was a boy she had never mentioned to me before, and she told me that she loved him. Before long, every story she brought home from her day seemed to involve Daniel* in some way.
“Mommy,” my daughter would tell me, “Daniel is new and he is just sooo cute. I sat next to him at lunch today.”
Or, “Mommy, Daniel loves Sponge Bob. It’s his favorite thing in the whole world. I’m going to draw him one and give it to him tomorrow.”
Or, “Mommy, sometimes Daniel has a hard time following the rules during recess, so I help him”
Or, “Mommy, Daniel has the cutest smile.”
Or, “Mommy, Daniel is so lucky because he gets to have a teacher to play with him all the time.”
I was a bit bemused by her passion for Daniel. As I have mentioned before, she already has a fiance, a backup fiance, and a back-up back-up fiance. She also has a best friend at school, who is the Diana to her Anne. And although she talks frequently about all of her friends, never before had one person dominated so many of our extracurricular conversations.
* * *
Then one day I finally met Daniel, the boy I thought I had come to know so well. It was during pick-up after school , which is always a crowded time of day. My daughter pointed toward the building and said, “Mommy, look! There’s Daniel! Isn’t he so cute?!” Looking around the group of children, I saw a blonde boy with a red shirt near the place she had indicated. I waved, and said hi, but my daughter just laughed. No, she told me, Daniel was the boy next to the building, who was holding his teacher’s hand.
And in that moment, I realized two things: First, that Daniel has Down Syndrome. And second, that my daughter has no clue.
My daughter has no idea — none — that there are many people in this world who view Daniel as being different, or slow, or limited. To her, Daniel is a boy who loves Sponge Bob and Scooby Doo, the one child in her entire class shorter than she is, the kid with the magnificent smile.
I don’t think I have ever been more in love with my daughter than I was in the moment when I had that realization, because it was such a powerful indication of the person she fundamentally is. When she was first diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, I knew that she had superpowers. And one of those superpowers is the ability to see people without being distracted by the buzzing of social perceptions and prejudices that those of us who are neurotypical are so keen at picking up. My daughter sees what people show her, and in Daniel, she saw a friend.
* * *
The story could end here. It probably should, as far as good writing goes. But I went on a field trip with my daughter’s entire first grade class and I realized something else, something far more important, and I can’t end this post without mentioning it.
Those kids? They love Daniel. It’s not just my daughter, who is special in her own way. They all like him. They all wanted to spend time with him, to make him laugh, and to hold his hand and help him when he needed it. I can’t say whether they perceived Daniel’s differences or not. The point is, it didn’t matter. He was as much a part of their group identity as anyone else. And that, my friends, is beautiful.
My daughter doesn’t attend a private school. She isn’t in a rich school either — more than half the kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Our test scores aren’t fabulous, mainly because so many of our students are children of immigrants whose first exposure to English has been in their kindergarten classroom. GreatSchools.com rates us at a six out of ten.
But I don’t think I would want to send my daughter anywhere else. What her school offers goes far beyond what can be measured. There is a community there, an understanding that we are all in this together. She is being educated — and educated well — but more importantly, she and her classmates are learning what it means to be a part of a group, to value differences, and to respect what makes each of us unique.
So the next time you hear that our schools are in crisis, remember Daniel, and let yourself believe that the future is in good hands.
*We will call this young man Daniel, because I don’t like using real names, and Daniel is what I would have named a son if I’d had one.