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October 19, 2008
A 'Special' Homecoming Queen
Some high school students in Libertyville, IL, a suburb of Chicago, could teach the east and west coast sophisticated elitists who mock Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin for knowingly giving birth to a Down Syndrome child, some important lessons about real diversity, true choice and respect for all.
According to a front page storyin the Chicago Tribune, these adolescents elected for Homecoming Queen (remember how important that was when you were in high school?) Anne Jennings, their classmate who is afflicted with Down Syndrome.
As a 17-year-old with Down syndrome, the senior "has been walking on air" since being crowned this month.
"Before, I was just plain me," said Jennings, selected by student vote out of 17 nominated girls. "When I was queen, it changed. It's amazing. Everyone loves me. I love me."
And they do.
Her mother's videotape of the Oct. 3 school assembly when her daughter was crowned says it all. After Jennings learned that she was among the top five members of the court, the video images began shaking. By the time the crown was placed on Jennings' head, the background noise boomed with the sounds of students cheering wildly.
By then, Ellen Jennings said, she had dissolved into tears, explaining why the video images bounce from floor to walls and back to her screaming, happy daughter.
"Amazing. Unbelievable," she said later. "You teach kids to do the right thing and treat people all like individuals, and look what happens."
She credits the warmth shown by classmates to the years that Jennings spent in regular education classrooms, where she was taught through 8th grade.
Why did the students vote for Jennings?
Megan Collins, 16, a junior, is among those who voted for Jennings.
"Once she was nominated, she was so happy and excited," Collins said. "I heard her say, 'I don't want people to vote for me out of pity' because of her challenges. I knew she would appreciate it more than the other girls."
Lauren Vogg, 14, a freshman, attended Adler Park Elementary School with Jennings. Today, Vogg and her friends volunteer for a program called Best Buddies that teams them with students with disabilities. She voted for Jennings.
"I think over the years, we have recognized her more as a high school student and not just a person with special needs," Vogg said.
Other Libertyville students started a Facebook group, "Annie Jennings for Homecoming Queen," that accumulated more than 300 members—something Ellen Jennings didn't discover until after her daughter was crowned.
"I was just blown away," she said.
Like her classmates, Libertyville High's Homecoming Queen does have a life of school, work and even boyfriends and plans for the future.
Every day at 10:45 a.m., she returns from an off-campus work program, hops off a bus, enters the school and greets Dolan with a fist bump, which she calls "knuckles."
"She has been walking on air," Dolan said.
Jennings shares lunch, gym and keyboarding classes with the "normies," as she refers, with affection, to her mainstream peers. After graduating from Libertyville High next spring, she plans to enter Hawley Transition School in Mundelein, where she will learn independent-living skills such as how to manage money, use public transportation and keep a job.
She hopes to attend college after that, and marry her boyfriend, who took her to the homecoming dance, she said. She relives that weekend every time she looks at the pictures, with her smiling in a black dress and shawl.
"The paparazzi took a lot of pictures," said Jennings, a Special Olympics athlete and fan of the Jonas Brothers. "We ate out at Lino's. I had to give a speech."
And what does her mother, who has undoubtedly borne an extra burden as the parent of a special needs child, think of all this?
In some ways, being named homecoming queen has changed the way Jennings thinks about Down syndrome, "that it's not the worst thing in the world that could happen to someone," Ellen Jennings said.