In this election season, it’s easy to focus on what makes us different rather than our common bonds. As adults, we often have difficulties bridging cultural, racial, and other gaps that would make us stronger as a community, as a nation. Thankfully, our future isn’t only dependent on us; our youth are paving a road for a brighter tomorrow.
On a warm Friday night in October, the Charlottesville High School community (home of Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia) offered a lesson in our shared experience, our common humanity, choosing my daughter, Naia Grace Fairchild, as the Homecoming Queen of the Black Knights. For the seniors who nominated her to the court, and the student body that voted her as queen, it may have been an obvious choice. Yet, to those of us who grew up in different times, overcame unspeakable odds, and experienced a more callous school community, Naia’s election is significant, even inspiring.
Cheers rang out in the crowd as my husband Greg and I escorted Naia across the football field to join the other members of the court and their escorts. The speaker listed Naia’s high school accomplishments as we walked through the color guard, their flags twirling in the night sky. Her life sounded like any other aspiring college-goer: intern at the Virginia Discovery Museum and the YMCA Child Care Center, honors student, cheerleading team manager. Then, an unexpected twist — keynote speaker of the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress annual meeting.
As the announcement approached, Naia’s excitement was palpable. Her hands left our grasp and folded prayerfully, her head bowed down awaiting the news. Those expectant moments felt like an eternity, and then they called her name. Naia leapt forward joyfully to claim her crown, the crowd erupting in her honor.
To us, Naia’s election as Homecoming Queen was remarkable, and, during Down Syndrome Awareness Month, seemed only fitting. Eighteen years ago, we chose Naia after learning in utero that she would have Down syndrome and a major heart defect. At that time, we could not even imagine the possibilities for her life today — her pursuit of a standard diploma, expectations of community college, and an abundance of friends of every age and experience.
The Charlottesville High School student body reminded us of what community means, and how its diversity is not only an asset, it’s a defining and essential characteristic of our vibrant culture. Words cannot adequately express our gratitude to the community for choosing Naia to represent them this Homecoming.
In truth, Naia’s path to this moment was paved with the hard work of so many teachers, therapists, family and friends who have taught, challenged, supported, encouraged, loved, and enjoyed her. That road began months before she was born and continues today.
Perhaps Naia’s story is sounding familiar now. At Naia’s first birthday, our family’s journey was catalogued in a six-part series written by then-Boston Globe reporter Mitchell Zuckoff and photographed by his wife, Suzanne Kreiter. We exposed ourselves — our doubts, faith, concerns, and questions — in an effort to help others facing similar challenges. Nearly 20 years later, we can now reach back to share the joy we have experienced as Naia’s parents and the awe and appreciation we feel in watching the community embrace her.
Naia, in a local television interview, said, “A lot of people with Down syndrome don’t get to become homecoming queen, so this is a big honor for me.” Her Homecoming King, Francis MacCall, noted, “A lot of people asked if it was a communal effort to vote Naia as homecoming queen, but everyone sees how great she is and made that conclusion themselves.”
Naia’s election has given us a glimpse of what we all strive for as parents — to have our children accepted and included, and working to be their best selves.Tierney Temple Fairchild is the executive director of Resilience Education.