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My Son With Down Syndrome Believes 'Labels Are for Cans, Not People'

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Imagine your child went through three years of middle school earning honor roll or honor society every quarter, then moving to a new school district shortly thereafter to begin high school. If you were like my wife and me, we were excited about our son’s prospects given his academic prowess and proven track record. On top of this, he was to attend the same high school where we met, fell in love and were star athletes. It appeared the table was made to order and laid out perfectly for the next part of the academic journey. Visions of grandeur where clubs were easy to access and become a part of. Where prom was no longer a far off fantasy but one close at hand and wildly anticipated. Continuing to take part in school plays where his unique talents could continue to develop and shine. And lastly, enjoying high school dances were images etched deeply into our being.

Then something was lost in translation. His transcripts were dismissed because his diagnosis of Down syndrome held more weight in the school’s eyes than his prior performance. Clubs were not an option because he wasn’t viewed as a regular student. Drama was another door left locked for reasons still not understood. We also learned that accessing homecoming was for everyone except our son and a few others identified as “special education” students. In two short months, we had gone from king of the hill, an A student, full inclusion to the opposite. The explanation, “he has Down syndrome so whatever he did prior to high school is inconsequential and inflated.” This was the first time during his academic journey where we were sorted by a label with no regard for the person outside the diagnosis.

As my wife and I planned, plotted and navigated our next steps, our son, Brandon, used the challenges as motivation to change the fiber of the school. When homecoming came around and he wanted to be part of the parade and float, he didn’t ask for permission to join. He showed up, rolled up his sleeves, and demonstrated top-tier school spirit. When he was initially placed into the “special education” classes and forced to eat lunch at a certain table, he removed himself and headed to the senior quad where he mingled with the entire student population. Yes, the calls came from administrators and so-called case managers that this wasn’t part of the program, their calls did nothing to dissuade Brandon from his goals. Eventually, hearts and minds began to change when as a freshman, he made the boys basketball team. The tide was slowly ebbing in his favor. He now had the best athletes in his class on his side who saw he was capable, and more importantly, a great teammate.

There was a point during the struggle where we were looking to remove him from the high school midway through his junior year when drama, access to certain classes and his application for ASB were denied. He had other plans and told us “they haven’t seen the real me and I want to show them that I am capable of many things.” We quickly realized that Brandon had turned a life-changing corner on his road to independence and self-determination. We agreed to let him do it his way, and what happened in a span of 12 months can only be described as epic.

He applied once again to become part of ASB Leadership because he knew this was where the students of influence resided. When his initial attempt to get in was denied, he advocated on his behalf to get an interview. He got the interview and was selected as part of ASB. Next up was inclusion in a campus club. He decided the best place for him to earn acceptance without label was the MSA (migrant student association). This club was a safe haven for Mexican-American students on campus, and although Brandon is not Hispanic, he was accepted with open arms. He soon earned the surname of Santiago Chavez and proudly wore his Mexican national team jersey to club meetings.

On a Tuesday, mid in September, I received a call from my wife reluctantly informing me that Brandon was nominated for the Homecoming court. This didn’t seem plausible given his experiences the prior three years, so we had to verify for accuracy. Sure enough, he was on the ballot along with 15 other Seniors. From this, five would be selected to be part of the court and one eventually the king. A week later votes were cast and Brandon informed us he was in the final five. We were elated for him because this was one of his dreams entering high school, but also unsure of the final outcome which could be another disappointment. But we were overjoyed with him becoming a prince. Then homecoming arrived in late September, and we were dressed to the nines because parents and the court had to go on the field at halftime of the football game where the King and Queen would be announced. As the hours turned to minutes, the voice from the loudspeaker resonated for all to hear “this year’s homecoming king is Brandon Gruber.” The only one not surprised by the victory was Brandon. He was so confident that he would become king that when he stood and waved to the crowd, it was if he were taking a leisurely walk through the park. It felt surreal to see the smile on his face and a crowd so caught up in the moment. The lights, cameras, cheering, hugging and crisp fall air all melted into a pictorial viewed at warp speed. He had advocated and won on his own terms.

What followed over the course of his final year was born on this glorious day. He was voted “Best Dancer and Most School Spirit,” earned all A’s and he started a foundation where he sold his art cards to help send many of his MSA brethren to prom and winter formals, as well as provide yearbooks for other students without the financial means to buy their own. He appeared in PEOPLE Magazine on two separate occasions for his philanthropy and inspirational journey. The boy had become a man, and therefore the man didn’t allow the struggle to defeat him.

He beat the system, altered minds and knocked down locked doors. The convergence of will and hard work on his part re-engineered the game and laid a foundation for other uniquely qualified individuals; a roadmap to follow.

Brandon tells my wife and me all the time that “labels are for cans, not people.” This is why he never accepted the status quo. He wanted more and thus set goals that not only seemed improbable but appeared impossible. He lives by a simple motto that drives him every day of his life: work hard, choose kindness every day and be yourself.

We know Brandon’s journey is far from complete and struggles loom before us that we have yet to encounter. We remain ardent in our support of his artistic and college goals, and his past has made it clear no mountain is too high for him to climb as long as he continues to dream big and embrace the struggle.

Follow Brandon’s journey at 321 Life.

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Image courtesy of FickleZeal Photography (Jenna Palomino).

Originally published: October 9, 2017
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