An essay on tolerance by Taylor Schroeder, Grade 11.

Walking with Leia“Retard! She must be retarded,” the boys taunted. Their messy blonde hair flopped up and down as they jumped down the Mount Everest-like steps of the bus. I kneeled down, catching the little girl emerging from the bus in my arms and squeezed her tight. Her high-pitched laugh echoed through the neighborhood, and her light-up shoes flashed, even in the intense Arizona sun. The loud screech of the bus tires brought my mind back to reality, and I lifted my gaze to the endless sidewalk – or at least it seemed like that in the summer heat – ahead of me. The seven year-old’s tiny hand grabbed mine and we began to walk home.

Although she could not talk yet, it seemed as if we were having a conversation. Her fragile fingers pointed at the bird that hopped across the road. When a cockroach scampered in front of her shoes, her squeal made me chuckle to myself. We leaped over the cracks in the sidewalk and even though she was not verbal, I could imagine her giggling and chanting, “Don’t step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back!”

Sure, her features weren’t particularly similar to the other kids at school. Sure, she was quite tiny compared to girls her age. Maybe her face had a unique shape to it, or her tongue stuck out a bit. But, doesn’t everyone look different? Walk into a second grade class; does every child look alike? No. As Americans, we must recognize that our country is uniquely diverse and exhibit tolerance towards people that aren’t exactly like ourselves.

Taylor and Leia at parkLeia had been diagnosed with Down Syndrome when I was too young to remember. I’ve watched cartoons with her and grown with her until I reached the age where I was proud to call myself a babysitter. Although we’re not blood related, I treat her as a sibling and when I’m with her family, I am introduced as a sister. She is eight now and cannot talk, but she runs and plays like any other kid. Climbing on counters to find the cookie jar, emptying the contents of cabinets onto the floor, mixing foods that shouldn’t be mixed -she’s done everything odd that a young kid does. Just because she has an altered way of comprehending information than the average grade school kid or because she has an extra 21st chromosome, doesn’t mean she can’t participate in “regular” classes. Disabilities don’t define anyone’s character, and they most definitely are not an excuse to be called “retarded.” Not only was the word “retarded” exerted by the boys on the bus, but it is often spoken as an adjective. “Retard” is not a word to describe an essay we don’t feel like writing, or a broken device. It is the epitome of a judgmental statement, a word of ignorance.

Frequently, disabled kids are separated from others in school. Because of the segregation, other kids are taught that the disabled are “different.” Similar to racial segregation in the 1900’s, children assume that they are separated for a reason. Soon, they do not want children like Leia participating in their game of hide-and-seek. What they don’t understand is that Leia is one of them. My communication with Leia at the bus stop exemplifies the fact that words aren’t everything. There are hundreds of languages spoken across the world, yet, we can all speak to each other in one way or another. Whether we are happy, feliz, or heureux, we all smile and laugh. Whether we are upset, bouleverser, or alterar, we all cry. Language barriers do not chain us down from interacting with others. Children like Leia might not be able to talk, but they can communicate and experience what other kids do. Leia knows the top spots on the playground to hide and knows how to play tag. I learned from her – a young girl over half my age – that it is important to accept everyone no matter what their nationality, appearance, or beliefs may be.