photo of Penny when she was five years old. She is standing on a wooden railing, with her back to the camera, and looking at a blurred creek below

Fear of the Future and Finding Goodness

I expected to need tissues on the day Penny finished high school. I expected a sense of deep loss, and perhaps even dread about what lies ahead. For many kids with Down syndrome and other disabilities, high school graduation is complicated by the uncertain and ambivalent path towards the future. (Penny shares her thoughts on graduation day and her future with you here.)

Fear of the Future

When Penny was little, I couldn’t think about the future because it catapulted me into fear. The thought of high school graduation was terrifying. I couldn’t even set goals for her upcoming year, even though we were asked to do so constantly. After all, she might not meet the goals. We might feel like we had failed her. People might say that she didn’t measure up. So many things to fear.

Step by Step in the Present Moment

The only consolation I had was in staying in the present moment.

In the present moment, she was just Penny, just our beloved daughter, and, in that moment, everything was okay. She was learning. She was growing. She was taking the next small step.

Fear dissipated, slowly, with time as I remembered to stay in the moment at hand.

I learned recently that graduate means “to take a degree,” but it also can mean “to take a step.” All across the nation, high school seniors just took a step forward. Penny was one of them.

collage of photos of Penny wearing her cap and gown at graduation and photos of her grad party

Many students with disabilities take a step forward from high school, and it feels like stepping into a void, without support, without community, without a sense of possibility for the future. We have been able to celebrate Penny’s step forward because we know that she is headed towards the next good thing. She is enrolled in a program at Post University alongside other students with intellectual disabilities and alongside her typical peers. But programs like this are still few and far between.

Practices That Moved Me Away From Fear

Several practices have moved me away from the place of fear, and I’ve been able to dream about the future with Penny for a while now. Her graduation didn’t bring tears or fear. Instead, I felt a sense of wonder and celebration.

One of those practices is gratitude, and Penny modeled that for me this month. She spent many of her evenings the week before graduation writing dozens of thank you notes to everyone from her class advisors to the buildings and grounds crew to her teachers to the athletic director. She wrote things like:

“…thank you for sharing your love of Taylor Swift with me. Also, thank you for helping me with my senior project. I noticed your help and I appreciate it…

“…thank you for having tough and more easygoing conversations. You make it easy to talk to other people…

“Thank you for always making Shepaug a safe and loving environment. I will miss you and your humor every day.”

“You inspired me to become a writer later on in life…” 

“You have helped me push through any obstacle that comes in my way. You are special. Thank you so much.”

That’s just a sampling of the notes to various adults at school. There were also notes to friends and to dance teachers.

I’m glad that I no longer live in a place of such fear about the future that I can’t imagine goodness on the road ahead. But I’m also glad for what I learned.

  • I’m glad I learned a little about receiving the gifts of the present day for what they are.
  • I’m glad for practices of gratitude that name what is good right now.
  • I’m glad for practices of celebration to commemorate.
  • I’m glad we learned early on that the way to move forward is simply to take the next small step.

I’d love to hear from you. What do you fear about the future? Have you found practices that move you from a place of fear to a place of hope?

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photo of Penny when she was five years old. She is standing on a wooden railing, with her back to the camera, and looking at a blurred creek below


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