Posted on April 4, 2020
As tough as we all like to think we are, this pandemic is affecting us in ways we could never have envisioned.
There’s no denying the severity of the situation.
But we’re all in this together, and we can still focus on all the good things in our lives.
Some moments feel hard, but when I stop and look around me, I realize there’s beauty everywhere. And reasons for hope. The other day, while trying to focus on the positive people in my life, one of those hope-inspiring moments came to mind.
About a year ago, I ran into a kid I’ll call John (to stay in his good graces), a friend I met in high school several years ago while shooting hoops at a local court. We didn’t know each other well, but we instantly connected, due to a mutual friend.
As time progressed, our relationship developed. Since then, we’ve continued to play basketball a couple times a year. However, it wasn’t until we got together for a particular session in the gym, not long after, that I realized why he’s such a beautiful person.
We were playing five-on-five basketball at a local gym with a group of competitive players, many of whom were good enough to play on their high school teams. One had played Division 1 basketball at Penn State. We felt confident our team was the best on the court, and we were not planning to lose.
But before our first game, John noticed something the rest of us had overlooked.
* * *There was a special-needs boy sitting on the side of the gym. He wanted to play. He had that hopeful, energetic, and loving look in his eyes. But from past slights, he must have known he wasn’t going to get a chance to run with us.
John saw the situation differently.
Without hesitating, he gave up his spot on the court, letting the special-needs player take his place. Our new teammate smiled like a kid on Christmas morning with his sneakers slapping the hardwood as he ran over to join us.
You can probably imagine how the rest of us felt about John’s decision. We had driven 15-20 minutes to get there, intent on flexing our competitive muscles. We weren’t exactly thrilled about the prospect of a slow-tempo game with less toughness.
But John held firm. Despite our frustrated looks. Despite our confused faces, and our overflowing testosterone. The kid would play, or the game was off.
It’s fair to say the contest became a lot less competitive. But as play wore on, something happened.
Somehow, just watching the special-needs boy fire up those questionable three-pointers, and dribble with that infectious grin while standing in place, made us all feel better. And it made us better people. We had come there for a hard-nosed game of no-fouls-called hoops that Saturday, but we left with much more.
It was a lesson in humility, to be sure. But it was also a lesson in winning—a different kind of winning, and the only kind that really matters. That day, the kid who starred in what must have seemed like the NBA finals to him, had captured our hearts.
John’s simple act of kindness reminds us that, all differences aside, we’re always in this together. This terrible pandemic, while bigger and more complex than a random game of hoops, presents a similar challenge.
One person doing the right thing won’t save the world, but he or she can—and will—make a difference.
* * *Oddly enough, I ended up working with autistic kids about a year later. My unofficial title is “one-on-one paraeducator” because I work primarily with one boy.
To be completely honest, I only fell into this career because it allowed me to coach basketball while simultaneously supporting myself.
As I ventured into my new world, I had no idea of what to expect. I felt like I could do it, but deep down, having had little experience and no training or education in the field, I wasn’t sure.
My first day on the job, something clicked. I knew that this was exactly where I was supposed to be. I had applied to more then fifty schools for a paraeducator position, and the one place that gave me an opportunity, with reasonable pay—ironically enough—was my old high school.
I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.
My autistic student, whom I’ll call Mike to respect his privacy, probably thought I looked like a guy strung out on caffeine my first day on the job. I scurried about the room frantically, following him around like a dog chasing his own tail.
The only thing I knew for sure was that he was a person, no different than you and I.
But as time passed, Mike and I developed a special mentor-mentee relationship. We became close. In fact, I’m not embarrassed to say we came to love each other.
Our bond developed over playing games of chase, with me running after him in a linebacker stance and yelling goofy phrases while he ran around wildly, screaming inappropriate words at full blast, with a gleam in his eye that said:
“Life doesn’t get much better than this.”
* * *Mike and other kids who have been diagnosed with autism are often looked down upon. People don’t want to be seen with them. They think they’re stupid. Or worse, they tell jokes and make fun of them.
The funny thing is, in times of crisis such as these, autistic kids are more likely to act reasonably than the rest of society, myself included.Instead of getting caught up in Twitter feeds, news articles, and how many packages of toilet paper are stashed away on the third-shelf of a bathroom cabinet, they seize the day, making the most of every moment, giving us back far more than they require.
We can learn from our autistic counterparts. Yes, it’s important to know how many people have died from COVID-19 in Seattle or San Francisco last week. But that can’t be our only focus.
We have to keep smiling, keep believing, and keep comforting each other, even if it’s only though phone calls, emails, and texts, or Facetime, Skype, and Zoom.
* * *My dude just wants some pizza, blueberry waffles with maple syrup, and his iPad. Sure, there’s much more to life than that, but he knows what’s most important: He knows how to achieve peace of mind.
Amid all the power, prestige, reputation, and successes that life has to offer, there is nothing more powerful than that. The late John Wooden once said, ”Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best.”
Troubling times, disease, and even death have no power over those with contentment in their hearts.
In working with Mike, I have learned more about myself and the world then I could ever have imagined. The lessons he’s taught me about patience, authority, and love have transformed me, and I am eternally grateful.
Not only for myself, but for what I’m able to apply and teach in coaching youth basketball, in writing these columns, and in every other aspect of my life. He’s made me a better teacher, a better coach, a better writer, and a much better person.
As we all jostle for financial security, health, and a sense of normalcy, I encourage us to take a page out of Mike’s book and search for the simplicities in life.
You may think that learning from an autistic kid is irrational, but whatever your beliefs, allow me to remind you that whoever created you, created him. And the universe makes no mistakes.
There’s nothing more beautiful than that.
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Great Debate: Ranking the Pac-12 Quarterbacks for 2023Nick and Jack debate their respective Top 12 lists and have some fun along the way - March 11, 2023
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