We All Have A Lot To Learn From The Special Olympics

This past weekend, I had the absolute pleasure of attending the Illinois Special Olympics Summer Games.  My brother-in-law was competing in the powerlifting event and my family and I went to to cheer him on.  Parenthetically, he won two gold medals, though that is not what this blog post is about.

What this blog post is about, is just how incredible the event was.  This blog post is about how I wish the whole world could be more like the Special Olympics.  What this blog post is about is that when I picture the kind of people that I want my students to be like, I will forever imagine in my head the athletes that I encountered this past weekend at the Special Olympics.  And what this blog post is about is that we all have a lot to learn from the athletes of the Special Olympics.

These realizations hit me on Saturday night at the Victory Dance.  All of the athletes, and there were thousands of them, came together on the football field of Illinois State University to celebrate the incredible accomplishments of the weekend.  My wife and I went to celebrate with her brother and to just take part in the festivities.  I never expected to be overcome with emotions in the way that I was.  At one point in the evening, my wife went to go and dance with her brother.  I stood at the end of the football field on a hill overlooking the massive crowds of athletes and coaches.  In the background the music was playing loudly and I didn’t pay much attention to it, until a song by Lady Gaga came on.

Now, I am not normally moved by the music of Lady Gaga, but I have to tell you that on this evening, I was.  The song was Born This Way and on this night, I stood watching this incredible group of people who were born EXACTLY the way that they were supposed to be.  On this night, I saw more diversity than I witness on any other given day and not one person was being excluded or made fun.  On this night, I watched people dance in groups, or by themselves, or in pairs and never stop to look around to see what everyone else was going.  On this night, I saw people being 100% themselves and being accepted by everyone around them.  On this night, I realized that we all have a lot to learn from the Special Olympics.

The whole evening made me think of how different the event would have looked if the event were filled with people like my fifth grade students.  Had it been them, there would have been cliques of “cool kids” gathered throughout the dance.  If it had been them, there would have been children awkwardly standing at the edges of the activity, too worried about how they looked to join in on the action.  If it had been them, there would have been uncomfortable movements and hurtful conversations.  There would have a lot of good, but what I would have noticed would have been the not so good.

Later, when my wife and I were describing the night to my wife’s mother, she commented that the athletes of the Special Olympics were, “Just the most perfect group of people.” And it was so true.  It resonated with me deeply.  This group of people does not want our pity or our sympathy.  However, this group of people DESERVES our utmost respect, admiration and our complete and utter awe.  Because this group of people has more self-confidence in their beings, more kindness in their hearts, more acceptance in their minds than any other group of people that I have been around.  It was inspiring to witness.

So when I think about what I want my classroom to be next year, when I think about all the things that I want to change, I also remember that what matters most, is cultivating a community where people act more like the athletes of the Special Olympics.  I want my students to know the kind of confidence that those athletes know.  I want my students to feel the genuine kindness that those athletes feel.  I want my students to act with the complete acceptance of others in the same way that those athletes act.  If I can do that.  If I can make my students want to be a little bit more like this “most perfect group of people,” then I can feel good about the job that I am doing.

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