“Brave men are vertebrates; they have their softness on the surface
and their toughness in the middle.” —G.K. Chesterton

 

Wednesday was field trip day to the University of Notre Dame for my son Nicholas and his seventh-grade class. I happily got to tag along as a parent-chaperone. The morning was spent on a wide-ranging – and, frankly, exhausting – campus scavenger hunt. Although I’m not a graduate, I’ve gotten to know the campus pretty well since two of my kids started attending there, so I thought our team might have an edge. Starting at the Grotto, our crew worked our way south in a meandering fashion, checking off landmarks and notable buildings and getting group photos in front of each. 

By the time we reached the finish line at McCallister’s on Angela, we’d managed to tag 37 hot spots out of 54 – good enough for second place! I bought Nick some lunch and a lemonade, and he plopped down with some classmates for a well-deserved rest. 

Once we were through with the scavenger hunt, I figured I could duck out of the ice-skating activity that was to follow next. There were other parents who’d be assisting the kids at Compton Family Ice Arena, not to mention their teachers and ND student-workers, so I decided I’d just hang around long enough to get Nicky geared up and on the rink.

But I thought better of it after I laced up his skates and he tentatively stood up. “What were you thinking?” I muttered to myself. “You can’t leave now.”

Nick is a scrapper. You wouldn’t be able to tell that from just looking at him. He’s slight for his age, blond and pale, and he has Down syndrome. Consistent with the Down’s, Nick has hyperflexible joints and low muscle tone, which together contribute to problems with balance. 

Nonetheless, he played basketball for the St. Matthew Blazers for several years, and he’d go out for football if it weren’t for his parents’ reservations. Aside from athletics, Nick is an enthusiastic and capable altar server. He goes about his duties with solemnity and attention to detail, and he always wants to carry the tall processional cross. When he does, you can’t help admiring his broad grin. Nick knows well it’s a privilege to be hoisting that orienting image of our Lord’s sacrifice. He’s so proud to be able to lead the way. 

But there was no leading the way at Compton. Wobbling on the skates, despite the orthotics we managed to shove in, Nick wouldn’t budge from the bench. Usually voluble and gregarious, he was silent, weighing and gauging. “I’m holding on to you,” I told him. “Let’s try walking a bit – I know it feels weird.”

His nod of agreement was barely perceptible. 

I held his hands as he staggered toward the rink. It helped that his classmates were urging him on. When we got to the ice itself, he looked up at me, eyes wide, brows raised. He was shaking hard – visibly shaking, head to toe. It was cold in Compton, but Nick had his ND hoodie on, so he was warm enough. No, the shaking was clearly from his anxiety. He’d never skated before, and he was plenty nervous. That first step onto the ice was going to be a challenge.

Due to some nagging podiatry complications, I didn’t don a pair of blades myself. Besides, I wouldn’t be much help to Nick on the rink. I have painful memories – and the scars that go with them – of my own youthful attempts at mastering the ice, and I really haven’t skated since. 

Nonetheless, I didn’t want my dismal skating history to interfere with Nick’s opportunity to succeed, so I urged him on. “Did you go ice skating when you were my age?” he asked. I assured him that I did, and that I wasn’t very good at it. “You might find out you really like it though,” I told him. “Anyway, you’ll want to be able to tell mom that you at least tried it, right? How about just once around the rink.”

He nodded again. His teacher, Mrs. Balderas, was aware of Nick’s vulnerabilities, and she came over to meet us for Nick’s transition to the ice. As a further reassuring incentive, Compton offers something that I never had when I was flailing on the rink as a pre-teen: waist-high plastic skating trainers. Lots of them. They looked like mini green walkers, and neophyte skaters can grasp and lean on them while adjusting to the slippery surface. “What do you call these things?” I asked the student-workers.

“Well, I don’t know what they’re actually called,” said one, “but we just call them ‘Green Things.’”

The moment of truth was upon us. Still shaking, he gingerly lifted one skate off the rubber mat and stepped down on the ice. With Mrs. Balderas at the ready, Nick relinquished my hand, and grabbed the Green Thing for all it was worth. Then it was my turn to be anxious, but Nick stayed upright. This is a kid that still hasn’t learned the knack of balancing on a bicycle. I was worried that he’d take a serious tumble as soon as he got out further on the ice.

But he didn’t. He kept at it. And he developed confidence as he went. Mrs. Balderas could see that he was getting the hang of it, and she left Nick with his Green Thing to go attend to other struggling skaters – Nick wasn’t the only one. And Nick kept plodding along – more toe-strutting than skating – around the rink, and I stood ready to receive him after his obligatory lap. But he just flashed me that wide grin of his and kept going. 

After two laps, he came in for a landing and I assisted him to a seat. I thought he was done – he’d been so worn out by the scavenger hunt – but after a bit, he said he wanted to give it another go. I tightened up the laces some more, and assisted him over to another Green Thing on the ice. This time, there was no shaking, no hesitation. His nearby confreres cheered him on again, and he was off – around the rink, once, twice, three times – I lost count. Each time he came around to where I was, I could see him smiling and mouthing the words of the pop songs being played over the P.A. Laughing, keeping to himself at the rink’s perimeter, but enjoying this newly acquired skill – a challenge that he overcame, largely on his own and much to his surprise. Much to mine, too, to be honest. 

Sure, he had aid and encouragement – me, Mrs. Balderas, his classmates, the ND student-workers. But it was the Green Thing that made the difference. It provided just enough support to allow Nick to find his footing, to launch out on his own, to accomplish that which he thought impossible. It was an arresting image of actual grace elevating our natural efforts – of God’s assistance meeting our human striving at opportune moments to get us from less to more. Nick’s bolstered movement from fear to confidence to joy is a picture of what’s supposed to happen in this liturgical period we call Ordinary Time: an ordinary, quiet growth in virtue that begins with grace nudging us forward from doubt and resignation, and then sustains us as we take our faltering steps forward toward holiness. “Indeed we also work,” explains St. Augustine, “but we are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us” (CCC 2001).

It dawned on me later that day at Mass that Nick’s buttressing, his “going before,” was itself a brightly colored green. How appropriate for Ordinary Time.