Back when I was a young boy, I had behavior problems. Knowing that something about me wasn’t quite typical, my parents took me to get an IQ test where I was told I had an IQ of 57 and would be institutionalized as an adult. This turned out to be far from the truth—as a kid with Asperger’s Syndrome, this test could not provide an accurate assessment. Still, my parents didn’t know that at the time and worried what would become of me.
Twenty-five years later and I’ve graduated from college with honors, moved to New York, and do what I’ve always wanted to do for a living: write. Over the past month or so, I have gotten to share a multitude of stories that have really spoken to me but none have resonated with me as much as the tale of 19-year-old Madison Essig.
Madison has Down Syndrome, a genetic disorder caused by an extra chromosome in her body.
When Madison was born, her parents were told that she should be able to walk but might not ever be able to read or write.
Still, they refused to give up on her and sought to provide her with the same opportunities as all other students. It was a bit of an uphill battle but Madison proved that she had the work ethic to make it through a standard 12-year curriculum.
“She just doesn’t give up,” her mother, Kimberly Templeton, told The Washington Post.
Madison only ever had to be held back once and even that was for purely social reasons. She struggled to make friends in her third grade class, so Templeton decided to hold her back one year to be in the same class as her brother, Zach.
Their family moved from Washington to Washington D.C. when they were Sophomores in high school.
They transferred to Woodrow Wilson High School where Templeton convinced the faculty to let Madison take regular classes.
“It opened our mind to what is possible,” said Principal Kimberly Martin. “We shouldn’t just reach to the minimum status. We should push all students, regardless of their ‘labels,’ to their best.”
And push her they did! The vast majority of Madison’s classes were taken with neurotypical students. While she did have to go into a special education classroom for a few courses, she always followed the standard curriculum.
Nothing had to be dumbed down for her. Down Syndrome did make learning a bit slower for her, but she never felt shy about asking questions when she got confused. She even managed to keep up an active social life on top of it all, making new friends around every corner.
“She’s a lot more popular than me,” said Zach. “Her happiness is contagious.”
On June 13, 2017, Madison was one of 400 Wilson High School graduates.
With an A-minus grade-point average, she was one of the lucky few to graduate with honors. As she crossed the stage, her brother was right behind her.
“I’m happy me and my brother did this together!” Madison told WJLA as Zach turned her tassel.
Now the siblings have gone their separate ways. Zach is attending Tufts University in Massachusetts where he writes for The Tufts Daily newspaper. Madison is at George Mason University in Virginia where she’s a part of the Learning Into Future Environments (LIFE) program tailored to students with intellectual disabilities.
Her dream is to give back to the community by helping other disabled students as she has been helped herself.
“I’m just really proud that she can serve as a symbol for the Down syndrome community of hope and of promise and of the possibilities for kids who are following,” Templeton told WJLA.
When I graduated at 19 (I started school a year late), my grades were pretty good but I doubt that they reached an A-minus average like Madison Essig. I feel like I’ve already been through so much in the past six years and come so far. So I can’t help but wonder what Madison will accomplish when she’s my age.
“Don’t give up!” she said during graduation. “This is your moment to shine! Don’t let anything stand in your way.”