It’s not a stretch to say that Jessica Giddens is famous.
Ever since the Martinez teen won the crown of Lakeside High School’s homecoming queen Oct. 26, she’s been featured in our newspaper – churning up a lot of hits on our website – and she’s been on the TV news.
Last weekend, word of Jessica’s win hit the social news website Reddit – its motto is “the front page of the Internet” – and bam! Her photo – picturing her throwing both hands in the air, basking in her victory – has been shared over and over and over, across the country.
Why wouldn’t it? Jessica is one of the most popular girls at Lakeside. Ask her friends. She’s outgoing. She’s fun. She has a smile best described as relentlessly sunny.
And she has Down syndrome.
And for a lot of people, that’s what made this such an interesting, uplifting story. When something out of the ordinary happens, that’s news.
But after looking into it, I was surprised to learn – and am now heart-warmed to report – that Down syndrome homecoming queens aren’t that out of the ordinary.
I found 14 of them. And they were just in the past month or so. Allow me to deal out a deck full of queens (and one princess):
• Alex Milan, Gull Lake High School, Michigan.
• Alyssa Brubeck, Park Hill South High School, Kansas City.
• Samantha Alamo, Sebring High School, Florida.
• Meghan Burns, Juban Parc Junior High School, Denham Springs, La.
• Sydney Bloom, Tarkington High School, Liberty County, Texas.
• Shelby Wegrzyn, Freeburg Community High School, Ill.
• Betsy McSparin, Eastern Alamance High School, Mebane, N.C.
• Meagan Ammon (princess), Rekeil Clark (queen), Alexander Central High School, N.C.
• Brittany Neves, Rotan High School, Texas.
• Mary Margaret Burns, West Feliciana High School, St. Francisville, La.
• Katelyn Simpson, Northwest Rankin High School, Flowood, Miss.
• Caitlin Service, Arlington High School, LaGrangeville, N.Y.
• Madeline Braley, Plano West Senior High School, Austin, Texas.
• Tesha Credille, Springville High School, Utah.
Oh, and at Plano West and Arlington, the homecoming kings – Austin Igo and Fred Scanlon, respectively – also have Down syndrome.
I found more queens who were crowned last year. And the year before. I found one as far back as 1999.
Whew. Honestly, I wanted to search for more. But as a guy with a full-time job and a family who likes to see me once in a while, I just didn’t have the time.
Down babies are born with a little something extra – a full or partial copy of chromosome 21. Commonly they grow up with a little less muscle tone and a little less height, and learning delays mostly are mild or moderate.
But increasingly Down kids are becoming fully integrated into school settings, and are even graduating with regular-ed diplomas and going to college.
And these high-school kids like the ones at Lakeside, and the ones across the country who have been casting these refreshingly honest and caring homecoming queen votes? They’re finally finding out what any parent of a Down kid already could have told them: Apart from some of the physical and cognitive challenges they face, Down syndrome folks are pretty much like everyone else.
It raises my hackles a bit when I hear someone refer to someone with Down as “disabled.” I know the word’s clinically accepted, but it makes a living, breathing person sound like a car that had its spark plugs pulled.
Or, worse, that a person “suffers” from from Down syndrome. So often these remarkable kids are loved, nurtured and encouraged. You call that suffering?
The syndrome was named for the first physician to accurately describe it – John Langdon Down. How etymologically unfortunate. Many of the kids with this particular syndrome are the polar opposite of “Down.” They’re irrepressibly up.
(I’m sure that last sentence isn’t an original thought. I think one of the homecoming queens on my list actually said it.)
The way teens are increasingly opening their hearts to kids with Down syndrome should give your soul a boost. It can be too easy to feel “down” about the state of civility these days. Depravity seems to be replacing wholesome entertainment. Screaming might be replacing talking as a chosen method of communication. If you think society is circling the drain, it can be exhausting to paddle against the current.
But then you see homecoming queens like Jessica Giddens, surrounded by friends.
And it makes you smile – maybe even with a smile as bright as Jessica’s.
And a corner of the world just got a little bit better.