One of the best hours of my life took place in a community college cafeteria. I was surrounded by both friends and strangers as I watched a few people that I knew and several more that I had never met bare their soul for the world to see. As the first contestant took the stage, the novice emcee and the makeshift décor took a back seat to an extraordinary gentleman singing Michael Jackson’s Human Nature. As tears started pouring down my cheeks, I repeated to myself over and over, “Don’t think about how special this is. Don’t think about how special this is. Don’t thing about how special this is.”
I was at the first annual Extra Special People Awards pageant, and the ageless black man before me was not only singing one of his favorite singer’s songs, he was baring his soul for all to see. I’ve heard of them called retarded or handicapped or handicapable, but I was there to see Bobby, and he was not any of those things to me; he was simply my friend. I managed to pull it together for a bit, until Kristen took the stage. I knew her story. She went to my father’s church. I remember going to services with my mother right after my oldest child was born and being almost ashamed to carry my perfect, healthy child into the sanctuary in my arms. She had been normal by the world’s standards. She had been everything a parent could want, until just two years into her life; fever had left her soiled by the world’s standards. I couldn’t imagine how I would feel if that was my child. She was loving and vulnerable and sweet and all things good. And now I watched her on stage, singing into a microphone, blushing and bashful as ever, but beautiful and proud of all that she is. Any thoughts I had of salvaging my makeup were long gone.
I saw contestants sing and dance and even do comedy before Bobby took the stage to perform a dance to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I had to admit, the man had skills. He had more soul that I ever would when it came to the dance floor. He even winked at the judges before he finished his routine. He had the crowd in the palm of his hand and they were soaking up every thrust and movement that he made. But unlike any stage performance I had ever witnessed, this one was pure and true. These Extra Special People were not on stage for the applause, or for the glory or for their fifteen minutes of fame. They were there for their time to show the world who they were and what they were made of, and it was beautiful.
The personality and talent and soul that walked across that tiny stage before me was bigger than anything I had ever seen. The local beauty queens and youth that volunteered their time before and during this spectacle didn’t do it for recognition or out of duty. It was oblivious that they had seen the amazing people that stood before me as some of the purest examples of humanity, yet so often overlooked if not scorned by society.
At the end of the night, as each participant was given a sash and flowers and crown along with an award that suited what they had brought to the stage, the crowd stood and applauded and those men and women basked in the glory of it all. It wasn’t a conceited moment that they felt they deserved or a moment that they felt better or normal or good enough. It was a moment when they knew without a doubt, that the people in that cafeteria, the people that had paid money to come see them; those people not only accepted them, but loved them.
I went to a pageant for mentally and physically challenged people tonight. I went because my dear friend has a twenty-nine year old Down Syndrome child and I thought I should go support him. I went because Kristen would be there and she had worked so hard to graduate from high school recently and I knew people that didn’t go to her graduation because she was retarded. I went because I love Bobby and when I walk into his mom’s coffee shop, he stands up, steps away from his cartoon and hugs me.
A group of volunteers put together a pageant for Extra Special People so that for at least one time in their life, they could shine and be normal and have one of the most special hours of their life. Little did they know when they were making the sashes and buying the crowns that they would provide one of the most special hours of mine.