Sarah Sherman is no more special than any of the 141 other students inducted Thursday night into Blue Valley North High School’s chapter of the National Honor Society.
Her 3.75 grade-point average is high, yes, but they all have at least the required 3.5. Every one of the students worked hard to pull the grades while participating in school activities and logging at least 40 hours of community service.
She is, however, the only one who has Down syndrome.
As she was called to walk across the Blue Valley North stage at Thursday night’s ceremony, her achievement was not singled out. Her name carried no extra weight on the program. She blended in.
“That’s the part of it that’s the greatest achievement,” said Nancy Pence, the faculty co-sponsor of the National Honor Society. “That she’s a part of this group.”
The society’s national headquarters doesn’t keep statistics on how many students with Down syndrome have been inducted into the elite honor society. But Sarah’s achievement is unusual enough that she is the first in Pence’s seven years as a sponsor, and the only inductee with Down syndrome that Carter Burns has known in more than 30 years of being a principal.
Unusual but not surprising to Sarah’s teachers. Or her parents.
They’ve watched their little girl surpass expectations all her life. She’s so social, she runs into friends wherever she goes. So good at memorizing facts, she’s a “Jeopardy” whiz. She’s been in three school musicals. She taught herself sign language.
“People would look at us like, ‘She can’t be doing that,’?” said her mother, Pam Sherman. “She can. She did.”
Sarah never considers what she can’t do. She just knows what she can do.
“I learned from experience hard work does pay off,” Sarah said. “I feel if I persevere, the work will get done, and hard work does pay off.”
The 17-year-old junior has had to work hard for everything she has accomplished, starting as a baby with the basics, like sitting up. Her mother spent hours on occupational, physical and speech therapies to help her reach developmental milestones.
Early on, her parents learned they were lucky. Sarah didn’t have many of the health problems that thwart progress for many children with Down syndrome, a series of birth defects caused by an extra chromosome. Babies with Down syndrome are born with cognitive impairment, low muscle tone and other health problems.
Jim Sherman remembers when they had to feed baby Sarah hourly because two holes in her heart left her too weak to drink much from a bottle. One night when he got up to take his turn, he peeked into her bassinet and found her babbling and playing with her feet in her face.
“I thought, ‘This is all right,’?” Jim said. Two weeks later, the cardiologist said the holes had healed themselves.
“From that point on, it’s been good,” Jim said.
Sarah proved to be a bright and eager learner. She knew her alphabet at 3; when she was in kindergarten, a teacher didn’t buy that Sarah could know her letters.
She struggled to learn to read, but when she was 7 or 8, her parents noticed a new fluency. They discovered why: Sarah had learned to turn on subtitles on her favorite musicals, including “The Sound of Music,” and used them to help her read.
For years Jim has made index cards to teach his daughter, a visual learner. In grade school, Sarah would put the cards in a circle and sit in the middle, making up sentences with the words from the cards, Pam said.
“Hard work does pay off,” said Sarah Sherman, who was inducted into the National Honor Society on Thursday night. After the ceremony, the Blue Valley North junior thanked her aunt Deb McAnulty for attending.
“We have thousands of index cards,” Pam said. “We have boxes and boxes.”
In addition to history and anatomy, Sarah takes general education reading and acting. She works with special education teachers for math, has a peer tutor during a study skills class and is a peer tutor for a senior with Down syndrome.
A paraprofessional or teacher accompanies her to anatomy and history to help take notes because Sarah’s fingers can’t always keep up. She takes her tests apart from other students to give her more time because she processes information more slowly. On multiple-choice tests, the answers are pared because her brain has a hard time sorting; she’s better at simply supplying the answer.
She aces her coursework.
“We really push the envelope on Sarah, and she always rises to the occasion,” said Dana Steinwart, one of Sarah’s special education teachers.
Sarah works hard to make it happen. She does some homework after school, but weekends, when she’s fresher, are devoted to studying. During breaks, she hangs out on Facebook or finds other diversions.
“She likes to sing and dance, so we hear a lot of that when she’s supposed to be studying,” Pam said with a laugh.
Sarah set a goal of being inducted into the National Honor Society, just as her big sister was. She had the grades. She volunteered with Meals on Wheels, at her grandparents’ church and at a nursing home doing sign language with a resident who is hearing-impaired, and she kept track of her hours until she hit the magic 40. She got the requisite teacher recommendations.
“I didn’t even know if I was going to get in,” Sarah said. “I’m really excited about that.”
But her parents say it never occurred to her she wouldn’t make it. Why wouldn’t she?
“She doesn’t doubt for one minute that she can do what she tells you she wants to do,” Pam said. “There isn’t anything in her head that says, “Ooooo, don’t try that. You might fail.’ She doesn’t doubt for one second.”
After accepting her honor society sash Thursday night, Sarah got an onstage hug from chapter co-president Drew Gaddie, her good friend.
“I try hard not to cry when those things happen,” Sarah’s mother said after the ceremony.
“I had to try not to cry, too,” Sarah said.
Upon spotting fellow inductee Elizabeth Campbell, Sarah bounded over with an embrace. “Congratulations!” said Elizabeth, a junior.
“We did it!” Sarah responded.
Sarah wants to be a nurse, and her parents think she can probably work in the medical field, maybe as a sign language interpreter.
They don’t know whether Sarah will want to go away to college or perhaps start with some online college courses.
Just as they did with Sarah’s sister, Jenny, they will support her as she chases her future.
“We want her to pursue her dreams, just like we want Jenny to,” Pam said. “We want her to be healthy and happy.
“The rest is easy after that.” To reach Grace Hobson, call 816-234-7715 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.