Out of the Zoo: “Special Olympics”

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. This week she writes about her work with the Special Olympics.  Enjoy! (Note:  The video posted below is from the Messiah College Special Olympics event in 2018.) –JF

My favorite track meet of the year in high school was always the Parchment Relays. For one, the meet consisted solely of relays–both the traditional races that we ran at every normal meet, and several atypical events, like a hurdle relay and a long distance medley. The best part of the Parchment Relays, though, was the Special Olympics meet that was always held half way through the event. High School athletes would pause their warm-up or cool-down routines to line up along the track and cheer eagerly for Special Olympics athletes as they ran, walked, or wheeled their way to the finish line. My team would always cheer extra loud for our coach’s little brother Todd, who competed faithfully in the Special Olympics meet every year with an excited smile on his face.

I was thrilled when I found out several weeks ago that the Parchment Relays wouldn’t be my last interaction with Special Olympics. To my excitement, I learned that it is a tradition at Messiah College for all first-year students to serve as Special Olympics buddies when the school hosts the Area M Games–a massive Special Olympics event with well over a thousand athletes–on Service Day every year. We lined up with our Created and Called for Community classes early Thursday morning as we waited to be paired with an athlete for the day.

My Special Olympics buddy (we’ll call him Robert) was a second grader from a local elementary school. After being paired with Robert, his teacher greeted me with a warm smile, handed me his event card, and was quick to tell me that he was nonverbal. To be completely honest, this threw me for a loop at first. When I met Robert that day I didn’t know one bit of sign language; by the grace of God I ran into someone who taught me the signs for yes, no, and bathroom. Eventually, though, we settled into a rhythm–Robert stuck faithfully by my side as we wove through crowds to his different events, and put up with my repeated high-fives and fist bumps after his races. Even though I never heard his voice, I still learned about Robert that day.  I learned that his favorite color is red, he loves to dance, and he can eat two whole sandwiches before I finish one. Not only did I learn a lot about Robert that day, but I learned a lot from him too.

Robert taught me that there are myriad of ways someone can communicate, even if they don’t use their voice. As historians, the people we interact with the most in our research usually can’t talk to us–a lot of times because the ones we work with and study are people who lived and died a long, long time ago. As much as we wish we could, we can’t sit next to Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, or Amelia Earhart and converse with them for hours on end; we can’t physically hear their voices, or listen to them tell us their favorite color or kind of tea or way to pass the time. But even so, we can still learn from them. We look at their writings, their records, the things they leave behind and learn to communicate in a different way. Sometimes it takes a little more work than we anticipated–sometimes we don’t understand them right away, or aren’t equipped with the right tools to maintain a conversation at first. Sometimes we get frustrated because the people we try to understand are much different from us. When we’re patient, though, and persistent, we can come from our historical conversations having learned more than we ever thought we would.

One thought on “Out of the Zoo: “Special Olympics”

  1. Four of my wife’s and my children are Messiah grads. We always appreciated the school hosting a Special Olympics meet, and getting their students involved. Our daughter became a special education teacher. Messiah prepared her very well. Now she accompanies some of her students every year to the Messiah meet.

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