It was “Cominghome” week at Pope John Paul II High School in Nashville. Whereas “Homecoming” featured a court of young ladies, elected by their classmates, and presented at halftime of the football game, “Cominghome” was the opposite, featuring a court of young men, also elected, and announced during halftime of a basketball game.
The junior class had elected Sean to the court. Sean was a wonderful, friendly fella, one of the students in our “Hand in Hand” program that served students with intellectual difficulties. He was a student manager of our football and basketball team and a well known character around the school. Everybody loved him. I think the junior class sensed it would be special to have Sean represent them—for both their class and for Sean.
As was the tradition, each member of the court could choose a female escort for the halftime ceremonies. Sean, without hesitation or guile, immediately asked one of the prettiest girls in his class, who gracefully accepted. As they were announced, they were to walk arm in arm down the sideline, and then once at half-court, walk to the center of the court, facing the student body on the opposite side. When Sean was announced, the student body started cheering out of obvious affection, and Sean, overcome with joy, took the girl's hand and lifted it triumphantly as they walked to mid-court. The student body responded by leaping to their feet, cheering wildly, and Sean stood there with her, arms still raised as if in victory, basking in it for a full minute before the cheering subsided. Most of the onlookers, including me, were choked up by the beauty of the moment.
This week I announced we would begin a program during St. Michael's third year similar to the "Hand in Hand" program at JPII—so similar, in fact, that we’ve named it “Side by Side” to acknowledge our debt to them. The program will invite 5-6 students with intellectual disabilities to become “Cardinals” with us. We’re looking for kids who are somewhere between first and 6th grade intellectually, including, perhaps, kids with down-syndrome. They’ll be taught by a full time special needs teacher in their core classes, mainstreamed into a couple of elective classes, and encouraged to participate in the extra-curricular life of the school, where appropriate.
I was asked by a colleague why I wanted to start a program like this at St. Michael. She praised the school's generous spirit, but wondered how it fit within its “college preparatory” mission. I was taken back by her bluntness, but it’s a fair question.
Here’s my equally blunt answer:
Our faith is not an assent to a series of propositions or creedal statements. It is fundamentally an encounter, a relationship with the person of Christ. These kids will make that encounter real on a daily basis in the hallways, classrooms and athletic venues of our school.
My cousin Danny has Down-syndrome. He’s now over 40 years old, but there hasn’t been a single occasion when we see each other that he doesn’t come give me a big hug, and I don’t smile. There is no pretense to Danny, no hidden motives, no false platitudes. He lives in the moment, and is happy to see me. But he’s that way with almost every one: no enemies, only friends.
To put the matter theologically, Danny is a living sacrament of God’s love for those he meets, a visible, concrete sign of an invisible grace. When you spend time with Danny, or Sean, or other kids with disabilities, you feel God’s love in a real, palpable way, become more aware of the gifts that God has given you, find yourself more inclined to help people-- less distracted by petty, silly jealousies.
Though the "Side by Side" program will be a blessing to those it serves, I’m convinced it will be an even greater blessing for the rest of us.
These kids will become the school’s HEART. And in a school that professes to form “Great Hearts and Minds to Do Great Things,” our students will have greater hearts because these kids will become their classmates and friends.