Triton talk is the name of my high school’s news broadcast, played every day at the beginning of second period. Anything from weather, sports, upcoming dances, and club events were reported school-wide over a live YouTube feed at 9:15 A.M. Near the end of the school year, two special education teachers would go on Triton Talk and promote an event called A Night to Remember. They described it as this spectacular prom for those with special needs, where student volunteers would come and celebrate with nearly a thousand guests for a whole night. Being the self-conscious, anti-social teenager I was, a night of random dancing in front of hundreds of strangers didn’t exactly appeal to me. So, my freshman and sophomore years, I simply brushed off this event, and figured I wasn’t missing out on much. It wasn’t until my junior year that I came to realize just how mistaken I was.
Approaching the end of my junior year, talk of finals, AP tests, and all other concluding ceremonies had begun. And once again, those two special education teachers appeared on Triton Talk to promote what they called the greatest celebration in history. Once more, I brushed off their proposal to be a part of an extravagant event and figured I was already busy enough worrying about my schoolwork and football. But it wasn’t until third period, my English class, that the chances of me being a part of this celebration had become viable. In that class, I sat next to a gorgeously brilliant girl named Kelly who was a star on the soccer team and ranked number one in our class. She had asked me if I was going to volunteer for A Night to Remember, an experience she had taken part in the year before and claimed she enjoyed. I told her the idea had crossed my mind often, which was a lie, and that I would consider it this year. But the more she described what happened during that night, the more comfortable I became with the idea of giving some of my time to an event like that, and with enough reasoning, I was convinced.
So, a few weeks later, I attended the scheduled Night to Remember event training which was nothing like I expected it to be. This “training” was actually just a gathering of all of the volunteers, who sat in an auditorium while promoters gave us a run down of how the prom would unfold after bombarding us with free merch, making sure we fully understood one thing: This night is not about you! This meant we would have to drop the cool guy act, and step out of our comfort zones in order to be a fully present host to our guests with special needs. Once again, my fears of looking silly while dancing in front of others arose, and I genuinely contemplated if I should go through with this. But I took my shot and didn’t let self-imposed restraints stop me from donating my time to a cause that was greater than myself. So, a few days later, I showed up at the Ventura County fairgrounds, ignoring my own doubts, prepared to be the most caring, present host to my assigned guest.
Prior to meeting my guest, I was frightened by a number of scenarios running through my head. “What if my guest doesn’t like me? What if my guest likes me too much? What if she wants to party the whole night?” But when I finally met KayKay, I forgot all of that. KayKay was a wonderfully vivacious girl with Down Syndrome who was bound to her wheelchair. Her spirit that night broke beyond the confinement of her wheelchair, and I was prepared to assist her every step of the way. We began with the limo ride, then the red-carpet walk, where numerous paparazzi snapped photos from all angles. After entering the dance, we took a few photos at the photo booth, then headed to the dance floor where crowds of people were already dancing like no one was watching. And that’s when it hit me. Not only were the guests with special needs dancing like crazy, but their hosts were right there with them, matching their energy, following their guest’s dance moves and also dancing like no one was watching. I realized that this night wasn’t for me to look cool. It wasn’t for me to waste my guest’s time or bore them to death. This night wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about any of the volunteering hosts. It was about our obligation to make our guests with special needs feel unsurmountable for one night. So that’s the mentality I adopted for this event.
KayKay and I headed to the dance floor and we threw our hands up all night. I didn’t care that she couldn’t get up to dance because when she reached out her hands to meet mine, all I cared about was making sure she had the best prom possible. Hand-in-hand, we swung our arms in every direction and danced to the beat of the music for the whole night. The genuine joy she felt was projected by the wonderful smile she wore the entire night, and when the party was over, the gratitude she and her parents expressed was worth everything. It was worth stepping out of my comfort zone, worth dropping the cool guy act, and worth giving my time to a wonderful being who deserved it. The whole experience was so unmatched that I knew I had to share it with someone else. As writer and activist Audre Lorde claims,” what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared…” (40). So, I suggested volunteering for A Night to Remember to several of my friends, and the following year, a handful of them joined. That year, my close friend Isaiah and I co-hosted a lively and spirited girl name Stephane who, like KayKay, was bound to a wheelchair, but her spirit knew no boundaries. Stephane’s parents claimed that with help, she could get up and dance, so Isaiah and I took turns supporting and dancing with Stephane the whole night. Hand-in-hand, we would get up, sway to the music, stomp our feet, and forget everyone else existed.
Once again, it became apparent why I was doing this. People with special needs are just like any other “normal” person. They enjoy dancing, music, sharing laughs and smiles, and celebrating among friends. Throughout those two years of volunteering for A Night to Remember, I’ve grown to realize that service above yourself is a wonderful act, and it can teach you any number of valuable lessons. For me, I learned that being restricted by my own self-conscious is a silly restraint that I had imposed on myself. I learned to step out of my comfort zone and allow myself to be open to new, gratifying possibilities.
Lorde, Audre. “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” Sister Outsider. Crossing Press, 1984.