* When: 7 p.m., Tuesday
* Where: Red Bank Middle School, 3715 Dayton Blvd
There's been someone pretty special on the sidelines at Red Bank Middle School football games this season.
It's not a standout football player, though there are surely a few of those on the team. And no, it's not the girl who twirls flaming batons at half time, though she certainly wows the fans.
No, this year it's a 12-year-old girl who is creating sideline chatter and warming plenty of hearts in the process.
Though Anna Frierson has plenty of school spirit and has always dreamed of being a cheerleader, some might not have expected to see her on the squad.
She has Down syndrome, a genetic chromosomal disorder that slows mental and physical development. And though Anna's short stature and cute face clue most folks to her differences, fellow cheerleaders say Anna's spirit is all they notice.
"When we first heard that she wanted to be a cheerleader, we were so excited," said head team captain Hanna Holmes, 13. "She came to our first practice, and she was so sweet. We loved her. She was doing all the cheers, and then she said 'I'm a cheerleader!'"
Later, the girls voted unanimously to have Anna as a permanent part of the team.
Anna's parents, Jim and Patti Frierson, say the acceptance shown by the cheerleaders was more than they expected.
"She doesn't know all the cheers, she's definitely not perfect, but I think the fact that they have included her and accept her for the abilities that she does have is really what learning with special-needs kid is all about," Mrs. Frierson said.
When Red Bank took on Brown Middle School last Tuesday, Anna sometimes covered her face after performing and hid behind her fellow cheerleaders when it seemed obvious people were watching too closely.
But when the cheering began, she still stomped her feet and put her hands in the air at the appropriate times. Because of her short height, fellow cheerleaders missed no opportunity to hoist her on their shoulders for stunts.
She calls her fellow cheerleaders her "sisters" and showers them with hugs and holds their hands as they run from the field.
ALL ABOUT INCLUSION
The Friersons, who live on Lookout Mountain, Tenn., say their daughter's presence on the team is a victory for inclusion of special needs children in all aspects of the school experience.
They have sought that sort of inclusion through Anna's life, first, as a student at Siskin Children's Institute, where regular education children learn alongside those with special needs, and then later as Anna progressed through elementary school.
Until this year, she mostly attended traditional classes. This year, though, the Friersons said it was time for Anna to attend special education classes. They chose Red Bank Middle School because they say the school's special education program has a solid reputation.
It was refreshing, the Friersons said, that the cheerleaders would welcome their daughter.
"I think there are movies that unfairly underscore the notion ... that cheerleaders are all about perfection and hyper-normalcy," Mr. Frierson said. "This was such a refreshing development, and we certainly didn't push it, but once we felt that tailwind we all went along with it, because it is so natural for her."
In fact, Anna's addition to the team happened by chance when her dad mentioned to the school's principal how much Anna liked pompoms, and that she would surely enjoy bringing them to a few football games.
"Never did we imagine that she would come here and be a cheerleader," Ms. Frierson said. "That was not something that we ever thought about."
Kimberly Elbakidze, the squad's coach, said she wasn't surprised the cheerleaders welcomed Anna. Most of the girls are eighth-graders who have worked in the special education class throughout middle school. They already knew Anna and many other special-needs kids.
"This group of girls has the biggest hearts of any girls I've seen," Ms. Elbakidze said. "They embrace everyone. They are gentle and kind. They try to coach her to her maximum ability, but they don't push or and they don't get frustrated. It works beautifully because they are very understanding and embracing of differences."