Yesterday, I went to the wake of a 27-year-old former student. She is the fifth student that I have mourned (3 here and 2 in Mexico). It never gets any easier but this one really tugged at my heart. I thought at first it was because she had always been healthy. She had Down syndrome but she didn't have the health issues that some of our students do. As a special education teacher, you will most likely be at more wakes and funerals than most teachers. But Dana wasn't one of the wakes you expect to attend. I realized as I was driving home and processing why it hit me so hard. Dana had a hand in saving Sara.
You see, Dana was my first female student with Down syndrome. She walked into my classroom on the first day of school with Matt. He quickly informed me that she was his girlfriend and they needed to sit together. I had only had male students for the previous two years so this came as quite a shock to me. I wasn't even sure what to do with female students and now I had dating students? I quickly rearranged the desks so they were no longer sitting together. I wasn't exactly sure what they meant by boyfriend and girlfriend but I was not about to find out in my classroom.
I had a male student with Down syndrome before Dana who I adored. But there was something different about Dana and the rest of the female students with Down syndrome that I've had over the years. I can truly say that I have loved them all. I love their fiestiness, their stubborness, and their sassiness combined with their amazing sweetness and tender hearts. It's a combination that is hard to explain but it's so fun and so amazing. (Yes. I realize I am stereotyping right now but these things have been true of all the girls I've taught with Down syndrome.)
Dana was one of the first students that made me say "If God chose to bless me with a child with Down syndrome some day, I would not be disappointed." She was a blast. She had a family that adored her. For them, a diagnosis of Down syndrome was not an end to their lives but just the beginning. I met them in later years so I don't know how they processed the diagnosis or if they struggled. But I know that by the time she was in high school, they loved and accepted her for exactly who she was. They were one of the first families that made me realize that having a child with a disability was a blessing and not a curse. They helped teach me that you can raise your child with Down syndrome the same way you raise their siblings and they can turn out to be pretty cool kids. Dana planted the seed in my heart and in my head that I could parent a child with Down syndrome.
I only had Dana for one year because I changed positions the following year. But I can honestly say that was one of my favorite classes ever. I wish I had gotten the chance to teach her again. Even though I only spent a year with her, she will impact me for the rest of my life. In part, because of this spunky, beautiful, amazing young woman, I am now the parent of a spunky, beautiful, amazing little girl with Down syndrome.
Because of Dana, Sara is now thriving in a family and loving life---the way that Dana did for her short 27 years on this earth. Because of Sara, Laurence is now being adopted. Who knows where the chain will end? Dana's life on earth may be over but the ripples will be felt for years to come.