Celebrating My Daughter With Down Syndrome as She Graduates From Elementary School

Bret Bowerman
Ellie graduating from elementary school.
Ellie graduating from elementary school.

It is the eve of my daughter’s fifth-grade graduation ceremony. I’m staring at a blank graduation card, frozen, pen in hand. I can’t decide if it’s more daunting to have merely a 4” x 6” space to recognize her achievement, or that I have so much space to translate tears (both happy and sad) into ink worthy of the space provided.

To be sure, it’s just elementary school commencement. I don’t think I had one, and if I did, I certainly don’t remember it. But for a child with Down syndrome who consistently gave her all, supported by a school community who embraced her and made her challenges their own, it is a moment worth celebrating.

If I had more space, I’d recount the intense debate during her IEP meeting that would determine kindergarten placement that was interrupted by the Director of Special Education who commanded, “Ellie is not going to a special room. She is going to learn in a Gen Ed classroom with her peers.” And that was that.

Related:Download The Mighty app to connect in real time with people who can relate to what you're going through.

I’d talk about the moment when her kindergarten classmate, after learning what it meant to have Down syndrome and how Ellie had differences, broke the silence and said, “Ellie fills my bucket,” catalyzing an outpouring of affection from her classmates.

I’d mention the daily grind, sprinkled with moments of glory, like talent shows and recitals and the applause that follows. And simple pleasures like trailing her as she walks down the hallway, watching smiles emerge on the faces of people she greets by name, lighting up, one by one, like green lights down a city avenue. Opening a path for a brighter day.

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A banner promoting The Mighty's new Caregivers' Corner group on The Mighty mobile app. The banner reads, Get the support you give. Join the Caregivers' Corner to connect with others who are taking care of someone with a health condition or disability. Click to join Caregivers' Corner.

I’d also concede my angst that all the other parents might be watching her and feeling like Ellie lived “under a microscope.” Then, gradually, becoming pretty sure that no one was on the other end looking through the lens. And if someone was looking, becoming certain that I didn’t care.

Or the annual tradition of her parent-teacher conference when her teacher would invariably gush about how hard Ellie tries, how she’s defied expectations, and how they are stunned by Ellie’s subtle sense of humor and ability to cajole. I am grateful that Ellie was blessed with educators who accepted and appreciated her while challenging her to be a better version of herself. Her support team would do anything to tip the scales in her favor to succeed. Ellie was their mission and her graduation is their shared success (thank you!).

Her elementary school community adopted her, building a bubble around her. Next year, she’s off to middle school. Bigger building. Bigger challenges. Bigger kids, most of whom didn’t meet Ellie before they were old enough to realize she might have differences. Middle school is tough for any kid. For Ellie, my heart pleads for kindness from her future classmates. She is certain to reciprocate.

Related:To Parents Who Worry About the Future for Your Child With Down Syndrome

As my mind drifts toward concern, I need to remember that Ellie always rises to the occasion and can convert the non-believers. I’ve said before that Ellie can go to the moon, and I believe she will dent the universe in her own way.

In thinking about it, 4” x 6” is a lot of space to fill when four words capture it all.

Proud. Grateful. Anxious. Hopeful.

Here’s to you, sweet Ellie. You did it! I love you.

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