A few weeks ago, I took my oldest two sons, A-- and S--, to watch my dear friend's daughter compete in the Special Olympics. It was an amazing experience for me. I spent most of the time we were there wiping away tears. Who knew you could feel the Spirit at a sporting event?
As we watched these incredible souls compete, S-- started to ask questions. "Why is that person so excited even though they didn't win? Why did that man keep swimming, even though everyone else was done a long time ago?" So I told him (or tried to, through my tears) about the Special Olympics Athlete Oath: Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.
Fast forward to this past weekend. S-- and A-- both competed in the Utah State Fiddle Contest. S-- was one of maybe 15 children in the Small Fry division playing fiddle; A-- was one of three in the Junior Guitar division playing, well, guitar of course. I was proud of both of them for even getting up there--neither one has ever played in a contest, and only S-- has played in public before (once). In spite of a few relatively minor mistakes, they both played quite well. Nothing spectacular, but nothing horrible either.
When it came time to announce the winners for the Small Fry division, they had all the children come up on stage. They handed out Certificates of Participation to every child until they got to the last four. S-- was one of the last four. They handed out the 3rd place trophy (not to S--). the 2nd place trophy (again, not to S--), and finally the 1st place trophy (still, not to S--), and told the kids that was it. S-- stood there completely bewildered. I could read his thoughts (and his quickly crumpling face): "Do I stay up here because they didn't give me anything? Do I get something special? I don't know what to do." I watched him fight so hard not to cry and I felt helpless. Thankfully, someone in the audience yelled out, "HEY! You forgot one! The boy in the red shirt!" So the officiators checked their hands and, sure enough, there was S--'s certificate. All they said was, "Oh. Oops, I guess we forgot one."
I was livid.
S-- came back to his seat next to me and spent the next hour and a half (at least) sobbing quietly into my shoulder. This is the boy who came home crying from his very first Pack Meeting because not one person acknowledged him as being a brand new Cub Scout. Other boys were brought to the front and introduced as new Cubs, but not S--. He didn't want to ever go back. I couldn't blame him. It took a lot of gentle persuasion to get him to agree to even attend another Pack Meeting, let alone participate. Given that background, and after all he's been through in the last year or so, I just knew that S-- would never, ever want to compete in another contest again, no matter how good he gets.
We had to fill out a survey about our contest experience. The first question was, "What did you like about this experience?" S--'s answer was, "Nothing." Then, at the bottom of the survey, was the question, "Will you participate again next year?" I expected he'd say, "No, never again." But he didn't. My brave little boy bounced back. His answer? "Maybe." I was never so proud of him as I was in that moment. (Well, except for when he was standing alone on that stage, trying not to cry.)
I thought back to our experience just a few short weeks ago and remembered telling S-- about the Special Olympics Oath. I didn't think he got it. Or maybe he always had it in him. Because even though he didn't win, he was definitely brave in his attempt.
He'll be back.