Community Forged through Differences
by Kevin DeCusatis
Special Olympics has been the most impactful experience for my teaching career. It has defined my pedagogy as one that values community and differences, and, as a result, reaching students where they are at, specifically in regard to their faith journey.
Every year, I most look forward to the weekend where I get to work with the friends that I’ve made through Special Olympics. Since we first met eight years ago, this tradition has endured through the community that we formed as unified partners for Special Olympics. My experience as a coach and unified partner has taught me to emphasize the importance of community and comfort in the classroom. I often will use instructional time in creative, community-building ways to inculcate a strong, cohesive class identity for each of my five sections. Maybe it’s having Taylor Swift Tuesdays, or Fave Band Fridays, or perhaps having discussions about an upcoming dance or concert. What I’ve learned, though, is that carving out time for this fun has a profound effect: it builds community, involvement, engagement, and interest. I learned this from Special Olympics. While we probably could have used a few more minutes to go over plays or new techniques, we would never think to shorten our birthday celebrations or team chant at the end of practice for some more tactical or administrative tasks. Special Olympics taught me that it is sometimes more important to take time to be silly and caring than to stick to a rigid, unyielding schedule. Both my Special Olympics athletes and students have responded to that.
Another critically important lesson that I learned first-hand from my time with Special Olympics is the value of working with a community different from myself. As an able bodied person, one who runs marathons, climbs stairs with ease, and navigates crowds and public transportation without concern, I had to confront how I approached difference when I worked so closely with and befriended Special Olympic athletes. This challenged me exactly because our differences were so stark.
The skill of acknowledging difference is clearly demonstrated on the track or cross country course. I’ve been a track and cross country coach at my high school for a few years now. Perhaps the most jarring, and at the same time attractive, aspect of these sports is that there is demonstrably someone better than you at any point in the season, as well as someone who is worse than you. Some of my current athletes are nationally ranked while others can barely manage to end their races without turning blue in the face. This disparity in skill is what I love about running: track and cross country are so quantitative. Because of this, I am able to have very clear discussions with my athletes in order to make realistic goals and strategies. I don’t think I would feel so comfortable with difference had I not been a unified partner in Special Olympics. As a unified partner, I would play soccer with my athletes as well as coach them. That meant I was feeding them the ball, charging down the field with them, celebrating our victories, and mourning our losses. Among the athletes, there is a wide gap in ability level, however, we always followed the mantra “play to their level;” we needed to push them, to make them work for the goal or the ball. I yelled, “You better hustle if you want the ball,” more times than I can remember during our matches. Adriana may be a stellar goalie, but Maggie can’t run very fast; Andrew may be eager for the ball, but wouldn’t know what to do with it once he got it, while Kevin would know exactly what to do with the ball but did nothing to get it. This disparity in ability is also seen in the classroom: I have students that can write a very sound argument while in the seat next to her is a student who can’t make an inference based on a church document we just read in class. What I learned from my athletes is that I need to respond lovingly while having standards. My Special Olympics athletes didn’t want a free pass; they wanted to compete. They were hungry for more, and they taught me how to strike a balance of love and discipline. They forced me to learn how to forge community through lifting up and honoring our differences, all by living up to the athlete oath: “let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
Photo of basketball game courtesy of Special Olympics Hawaii under CC by 2.0