Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Megan Scheidler smiles during a math exercise.
Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Megan Scheidler smiles during a math exercise.

LAKE OSWEGO — Among the graduates gathered last week at Our Lady of the Lake School here, a head of vibrant red hair stood out among the brown, blond and black. But the nine-year academic career of Megan Scheidler has been characterized as much by fitting in as by being different.

Megan, 15, is the first child with Down syndrome since the early 1990s to graduate from a Catholic school in Oregon. She will not be the last. A few youths with the genetic condition are coming through the ranks.

Megan has helped the cause overall by exceeding expectations.

"It's a very hopeful story for people who have a child with a disability," says Megan's mother, Paula Scheidler. "It's possible for a child with disabilities to attend Catholic school in our archdiocese."

Last month during an annual religious ceremony, Megan had the honor of placing a floral crown on a figure of Mary. In typical amiable fashion, she patted the statue on the back after finishing the job.

Megan will attend Lake Oswego High School in the fall and enter a program tailored for students with disabilities.  

Megan, whose communication skills are delayed, expresses love with smiles and hugs. She is utterly non-judgmental. She is like most teen girls, loving boy bands and boys in general. She tends toward occasional moodiness, but joy is her typical mode.

Over the years, she has dissected five different creatures in science class, has had her art displayed in a civic exhibit and plays bass drum in the school band. She has run CYO track, taken part in gym class and played basketball at recess. During a recent road trip to OMSI, Megan jumped in a space flight simulator with a gang of boys from her class.
To sum it up, her grade school experience was almost ordinary. Meanwhile, everyone knows Megan has meant something extraordinary at Our Lady of the Lake.

At an age when kids can become cynical, this year's graduating class had an abiding reminder in Megan that life is packed with wonder and joy.

"She has changed the whole dynamic of the school," says Carol Childs, an instructional aide who has worked with Megan each morning for four years. "Megan has a certain innocence about her. Everything she does, she sees as if for the first time and she reminds people what that is like."

Childs calls Megan "an extremely hard worker" who often does not want to stop her academic exercises. "She will try anything," says Childs, who, like other faculty and staff, weep when they consider life at school without her.  

Megan's three brothers attended Our Lady of the Lake. When it came time for her to enter kindergarten, her mother Paula investigated widely, but none of the other options seemed suitable. She signed Megan up at the high-powered Catholic school and waited to see what officials would do. If they accepted her, it would be almost unprecedented. Catholic schools in general lack the resources for special education. But Joan Codd, the principal, and Father Joseph McMahon, the pastor then, welcomed Megan and worked out a plan.

There were some trials in kindergarten. Megan would not come in from recess, or would hide in the bathroom stall. But she adjusted and advanced.

Our Lady of the Lake has stuck with Megan for nine years, adapting for her only when needed. According to staff, faculty, students and parents, her presence has been not just a success, but an unmitigated blessing.

"She is such a positive little force," says Sheila Kleinheinz, vice principal. "She has been so good for our students. We are all sad to see her go."

John Cimino, the physical education teacher, says goodbye to Megan each day after school. "I always underestimated what she could do," Cimino says. "She would watch and then learn. Probably, her classmates will forget what they learned in my class, except what they learned from Megan."

Schoolmates say life with Megan is a give-and-take they appreciate.

"I feel we kind of help her out," says Ellie Grimes. "But she's just like us, just with a little trouble talking."

Allie Potter adds: "She makes us smile." Megan is known for displaying tae kwon do moves and spontaneous dancing. Allie says that her red-haired classmate should not be babied, but should be treated like any other peer.

"I want the best for her," says classmate Allie Slingsby. "We all accepted her in kindergarten and did not think it was weird. She showed us no matter what disability people have they are still people and need to be treated with dignity." Slingsby will attend Central Catholic in the fall and some day hopes to be a teacher and would like to have students with disabilities in her classroom.

Years ago, Megan got a place on a track relay team. Inevitably, the Lake Oswego runners would be in first place until she got the baton. Then they would finish last. Paula Scheidler apologized to one of the other runners, Mandy Mitchell. "It doesn't matter," Mandy said then. "We would rather have Megan on our team than win."

Now a seventh grader, Mandy is still a Megan fan. "All of us care about her," she says. "She's made our school closer."

Alex Ferguson, the art teacher, calls Megan's work and progress "phenomenal." Her talent, he says, is natural and she works with little inhibition. Ferguson says he has had some of his greatest teaching moments with her; he recalls a moment in when her efforts at self-portrait went from abstract to realistic but expressive. He submitted that piece to an art fair just because it was good and not because it was done by a girl with disabilities.
"You can see that art gives her such joy and happiness," Ferguson says.   

In science, Megan named an arowana fish in the tank "Diego." Science teacher Jim Willingham printed off a photo of an arowana to give to Megan as a graduation gift.

In the music room, teacher Tim McCarthy calls Megan "the best bass drummer I've ever had." She has natural rhythm and does her job efficiently with no complaint, he reports. She has made band trips to the coast, Salem and even Seattle.

"The kids love having her in band," McCarthy says.

Aubrey Nichols, the school's Spanish teacher, chatted with Megan each morning. The girl gave a valiant attempt at Spanish greetings and farewells. "She has brought out the best in all the kids in the school," Nichols says. "She helped them learn acceptance and she lifted them all up."