Graduation night at Dade County High School will be a bit more festive this year. Along with the valedictorian, the honors students, and the star athletes, Tristan Davenport will walk across the stage.
Tristan has never been a club president, he’s never scored a touchdown, and he didn’t ace the ACT. Here are some other things Tristan has never done. He’s never bullied anyone, he’s never spread rumors, and he’s never been sent to the principal’s office. If he’s guilty of anything, it’s stealing hearts. However, if you leave your keys nearby, he might pick them up. More on that later.
As Tristan nears his 18th birthday, he’ll join about 125 other students, most of them born in 1999 (the last graduating class to be born in the 20th century) on the graduation stage. Those who don’t know him will soon notice, he’s not like the others. Not that long ago, a student like Tristan would have been sitting in the bleachers, watching his friends from a distance. Thankfully, it’s 2017 and his friends will not allow that to happen.
Tristan was adopted by Tom and Tammy Davenport when he was one day old. His birth mother was unable to raise him, and wished for him a forever family. When he was a year old, the Davenports noticed some delayed developments. He was later diagnosed with autism, ADHD, limited speech, and a learning disability. Tasks that are routine for most children are beyond his reach.
Tristan’s daily challenges did not deter the Davenports. He’s a constant presence wherever they go, whether it be to shop, to worship, or to vacation. Thankfully, our society has done a better job teaching people to smile and wave, rather than stop and stare.
Like most modern public schools, Dade County High is blessed with angels who nurture and protect children like Tristan. They are patient when he fails, and exuberant when he succeeds. Paraprofessional Karen Johnson told me, “These children with autism are like geniuses. It’s our job to bring that genius out in them.” The teachers and aides who work with him daily will continue to do so until he turns 22. At that point he will transition from high school to a more adult-oriented educational environment. Still, the kids who grew up with Tristan are moving on after Friday night, and graduation is the perfect time for them to honor him.
Jodi Daffron is one of his fellow seniors. She met Tristan when they were both 8 years old. Even then, when many children seek out “the cool crowd,” Jodi befriended the little boy who couldn’t speak, run or play like the others. “He’s full of love,” she said. “The smallest things in life make him happy. If I’m having a bad day, I just look at the world through Tristan’s eyes, and everything is beautiful.”
One of his best days was four years ago, when Tristan was attending Orange Grove Center in Chattanooga. It was prom time, and guess who got all dressed up to take Tristan to the big dance? Jodi wanted to make sure her friend had the time of his life.
Now about those keys. If you want to make a friend for life, grab a few old keys from your junk drawer, put them on a key ring, and present them to Tristan. You’ll be rewarded with the widest smile you have ever seen. Tristan has long been fascinated by keys, and if his teachers didn’t keep him busy with other tasks, “he would fiddle with them for hours,” they say.
In fact, Jodi admits that keys are part of her graduation night strategy for getting Tristan on stage. He’s not particularly fond of large crowds, so she intends to walk with him on stage, and dangle a few keys if necessary.
Since many folks in Dade County know Tristan from church or school, they will understand, and he will likely receive one of the loudest ovations of the night.
Tom Davenport says of his son, “Although his learning ability is limited, his teaching is limitless.” As Tom told me, Tristan shows all of us how to meet life head-on without the preconceived notions many of us live by. He doesn’t engage in political battles. He exhibits no racial prejudice. He doesn’t judge others by the church they attend, the cars they drive, or the clothes they wear. He does not have the ability to hate. “Anybody that knows Tristan can’t help but love him,” Tom said.
Take a walk with Tristan through the halls of Dade County High, and you’ll get an idea of what it was like being Elvis. “Hi Tristan!” “You’re looking good, Tristan!”
The athletes and scholars have had their moment in the sun, and will surely have many more. On Friday May 26th, it’s Tristan’s turn. Be sure to join me in cheering him on, or better yet, rattle your keys.