Lately, we've been watching the story of Shea Shawhan very closely.
There are a few reasons I've been so interested. One is that the story is just so awful. Shea is a high school junior who suffered a brain injury at birth and has been developmentally disabled ever since. She also experiences pretty serious seizures. The news stories I've read have all stated that she has the intellectual capacity of an eight year-old, and while I usually shy away from those kinds of statements (I don't know that most kids with developmental disabilities develop at equal rates in all areas of their minds; that's certainly not true of Schuyler), it nevertheless allows the reader to at least try to understand what her high school life might be like. In a lot of ways, she seems very much like Schuyler.
Her disability isn't the awful part, not one bit. By all appearances, Shea's life is a rewarding one. She plays softball at her school and is even on the cheerleading squad. She seems well-loved and well-adjusted, living her life on her own terms.
No, the awful part is the texts. For months, Shea has been receiving anonymous (of course) text messages, harassing her, threatening her, and heaping the most vile insults concerning her disability on her. I'm not going to repeat them here. The texts were generated at a website that masks the user's actual number, so for the time being, the identity of the sender is hidden. I can't imagine that will be the case for long.
As I said, I've been following this story for several reasons, beyond just how awful it is. Shea reminds me of Schuyler in a lot of ways. Seeing her speak on television, it is very easy for me to imagine an older and verbal version of my daughter. Shea is eighteen; that's an age that isn't all that far down the road for Schuyler. I've followed the story because like Schuyler, Shea is a cheerleader, and is working hard to walk in the world of her neurotypical classmates. I understand how tricky that can be, and I get exactly how much she probably wants to be able to do so. It's a desire that Schuyler shares, and one than we try hard to accommodate, even though we know how treacherous and heartbreaking that choice can be, the decision to pass and to try to carve out a space in an often unsympathetic neurotypical world.
Our interest in Shea's story goes deeper still, however. Because Shea attends Plano West High School.
The school Schuyler is on track to attend in three years.
Before I go further, I should hasten to add that so far, Shea's story has taken a pretty positive turn. Her mother was extremely proactive and took the story public, even working towards creating a nonprofit, ImWithShea, Inc., to campaign against bullying. Cyberbullying is a justifiably hot topic in the news media these days, and the story got picked up in a hurry. As a result, the student population and the community at large have been very supportive of Shea, and she's become something of a local celebrity. (Schuyler has been particularly taken with Shea; she keeps asking about her "little monster", and about her cheerleading. I think Schuyler is intrigued by the possibilities that someone like Shea Shawhan represents.) Shea is feeling a lot of love at the moment, and the students at Plano West have gone out of their way to illustrate that the person or persons sending those texts don't represent their school.
It's all been very positive lately, but I worry. I worry that, like many of the special needs kids who are celebrated in the media, the world might return to its harder ways for Shea once the camera crews leave to follow the next shiny thing that catches their collective eye. I worry that the hate that was sent her way before is simply waiting patiently for the lights to go out so it can re-emerge. I'm concerned because despite all the positive lip service coming out of the Plano West student population, not one kid has come forth with any knowledge of who is committing these atrocious acts. I understand that there's a kind of code in teen culture, one that exists outside the access points for adults. But I also get that it's perhaps easier to adhere to that code if you can justify your silence by seeing classmates with developmental disabilities as being somehow less. Less deserving of your empathy. Less valuable to your school community.
Most of all, even though I know that this is the kind of thing that can happen anywhere (as if that's comforting), I still find myself thinking "And this is the school that we're going to send Schuyler to?"
Schuyler has never been exposed to online hate speech. Not directly, anyway. Her access is still carefully moderated. She's protected from direct contact on social media, and only a few of her friends communicate with her via text message. That won't be the case forever, but for now she's mostly uninterested in having more online autonomy, and we're certainly okay with that.
One day, and soon, that'll change. Her special way of communicating is perfectly suited to social media, and it's only a matter of time before she steps into a world than a good many of her classmates already occupy. What will happen then? Is that online world populated by jackals? Will Schuyler emerge into an online world, without her parental buffer, as fresh meat?
Schuyler doesn't always understand her classmates and how they relate to her. Cheerleading hasn't helped like we'd hoped it would. In some ways, it has served as a microcosm of the middle school teenaged girl experience, a place that has less in common with the Disney Channel and more with Lord of the Flies. We've been asking ourselves over and over if letting her be a cheerleader was the right choice, but of course it's far too late for that to be a productive conversation. She's working hard to fit in, and she's also committed to it. That's her choice, not ours.
Shea Shawhan is a cheerleader at the very school Schuyler is scheduled to attend for 11th and 12th grade. That fact alone suggests possibilities for Schuyler that we never entertained. That's a positive thing, there's no doubt about that. But clearly, at least one person at Plano West doesn't appreciate those opportunities being extended to kids like Schuyler and Shea.
The fact is, there are many, many people in the community who don't believe in inclusion. Sometimes they express themselves poisonously, like the anonymous texters harassing Shea. But sometimes these people stand up, at school board meetings or in letters to the editor, and use language that sounds measured, even reasonable. They don't always sound monstrous, which scares me even more than the cyberbullying.
Some parents don't want our flawed, beautiful, imperfectly perfect kids in the same classes as theirs. Some students don't want to sit next to them at school. Some members of the community don't want to see cheerleaders or homecoming queens with disabilities walk onto that football field on an autumn Friday night. Some don't want authentic relationships with the disabled. They are put off by imperfection. They fear difference. They may be horrified that someone said those things to Shea, but in their secret hearts, they may have even thought similar things themselves.
I don't think there are very many people like that, not now, in 2013. I've seen communities stand up for kids like Shea when their situations become public. I've witnessed kids treating Schuyler with genuine friendship. The world that kids like Shea and Schuyler occupy is mostly good. I truly believe that. I don't believe it all the time, perhaps, but my faith in humanity can take a little shaking without falling to pieces.
But we've all seen so many tragic cases of what school bullying can lead to. We've read the heart-crushing stories of the kids who have had more than they can bear, and we've seen them end their lives. It has become one of those media narratives that is depressing in its familiarity. It happens to kids who are different, and some of those differences can seem insignificant to us as adults.
Kids like Schuyler and Shea are different in ways that aren't always subtle, and which are almost never overlooked by their peers. So far, Shea Shawhan seems to be handling the situation with courage and grace, thanks in no small part to a great deal of family and community support. I don't know how Schuyler would deal with that same kind of situation. My heart tells me that she wouldn't take it well at all. I hope I never get to find out.
|Photo zazzed up by Schuyler|
Before I wrote the above post, I contacted Kerri Riddell, Shea's mother, to make sure she would be okay with me writing about her daughter. She very kindly and enthusiastically agreed, and what followed was a correspondence that quickly shifted to direct contact between Shea and Schuyler. Shea invited Schuyler to come meet her at a Plano West football game last Friday, and we were happy to accept the invitation.
(A local news station ran a short piece on the game. Watch all the way through for a surprise in the last five or ten seconds.)
I'm not sure what to say here about the whole experience, mostly because Shea's story is hers to tell, and her mother's, but certainly not mine. I will simply say that it was extremely emotional for everyone involved, with two very unique girls who were happy to meet each other, even as their own individual disabilities and communication issues presented challenges. At the end of the night, Schuyler was overwhelmed enough to cry, something she hasn't done in a very, very long time.
I don't know if they'll meet again. But I sincerely hope they do.
|Please visit I'm With Shea.|