It was my husband’s turn to pick something to watch on TV one recent Sunday evening. Instead of the second presidential debate (thank goodness), he chose a documentary that he had recorded—Graduating Peter.
This 2001 documentary is the sequel to Educating Peter, which won an Academy Award in 1993. These two films follow the life of a boy named Peter who has Down syndrome, and who was one of the first special needs kids in his county to be included in a regular classroom with kids who did not have special needs. Remembering that October is Down Syndrome Awareness month, I was immediately intrigued by the story of this young man, his family, and his community. Peter’s struggles were obvious as I watched him navigate middle school, high school, and after-school jobs. In addition to his mental disability, Peter was also being treated for ADHD and depression. His speech and social skills were very underdeveloped as well, and he was often alone at school and sometimes acted out.
But Peter’s story, even with its challenges, would not be complete without the triumphs. I celebrated with him and his 8th grade aide after he bowled a strike. I laughed as he rode the roller coaster with friends in his peer group, and as he jumped up and down in the pre-game huddle with the varsity soccer team for which he served as manager during his senior year. I couldn’t help but smile as he danced with his prom date and when he held her hand at a basketball game for the first time. And I definitely teared up when his graduating class cheered extra loud for him as he walked across the stage to receive his attendance certificate.
In these moments I saw Peter for who he really was—not defined by his Down syndrome, but by his humanity. And it was beautiful—his story is beautiful. And stories like Peter’s need to be told. Not because his is necessarily the best version of what a life with Down syndrome can be like, but because even if it’s not, his life has value and worth and is something we all can learn from.
Here are just a few things that I learned.
No two people with Down syndrome are the same, but they are all special.
Peter’s journey is a little different than the ones the media likes to promote these days—like the Down syndrome child model or the young woman who was accepted into college or named homecoming queen. Peter’s story may not look like theirs, but it doesn’t make it any less important and inspiring.
The latest update I could find about Peter was from 2005. At the time, Peter was living down the street from his parents with two college students who had been helping him in his day-to-day tasks—made possible through a state-funded program. When I read this, I remembered that one of his mother’s greatest desires for him was to be able to live and work as a member of the community. She saw her son for who he is and never stopped believing that given the help, he could eventually carve out his place in this world. And by the looks of it—he did.
What more could any mother want for her child?
It really does take a village.
Peter would not have grown and developed like he did without the team of people helping him and rooting for him. From the first teacher who told his mother that she would be willing to include Peter in her class, to the many aides who supported him every day, his committed parents who advocated for him, and patient community members who worked with him—it took a village to help Peter graduate.
But just think of how this one boy made an impact on that community. How many lives were changed, improved, and touched, because they knew Peter, or they had the opportunity to help him or grew up with him. One quote from a former classmate of Peter really says it all:
"It really opened up my eyes to the way things are in this world, how different some people's lives can be ... It really teaches you a lot about tolerance and patience. And if you take the time to really get to know someone, you'll find many things you truly like about them.”
People are capable of so much more than we often give them credit for.
It’s hard to capture years of this young man’s life in a few paragraphs, and probably even harder to do it in just an hour and fifteen minutes of film. But Peter’s story is one that I’ll always remember because of his resilience.
Peter has had to overcome many challenges in his life, but he’s never stopped trying. He got up each morning (sure, with a little help), and he went out into the world, and he lived. His perseverance in the face of his challenges was truly beautiful to see.
The sad part is not that Peter had struggles—we all do in our own ways. The sad part is that when I remember that statistics show that up to 90% of babies with Down syndrome are aborted, I realize how many communities missed out on their chance to know a person like Peter—and missed out on their chance to grow as a person because of it.
Restoring a culture of life
More than 59 million babies have been aborted since Roe v. Wade. Restoring our culture in America to one that values life, that protects the innocent, and that respects that we are all created differently won’t happen overnight. But with so many lives at stake, we can’t afford not to act. Please share this post and encourage others you know to stand up for life.