Sunday, May 6, 2012

"Special Olympics is my life"

That statement was made by a young man who won the Oklahoma Special Olympics Athlete of the Year. His greatest thrill was to meet Barry Switzer, the honorary coach of SOOK (Special Olympics Oklahoma). My own involvement began in 1980 when I attended a track and field event as an observer. I quickly saw all the fun was on the infield, so I sneaked across the track and have been deeply involved since then.

For the past 20 or so years I've taken student volunteers to the State Summer Games in Stillwater, OK. This year will be no exception. The Norman North volunteers are exemplary in all ways, and several of my former volunteers are now special education teachers. Working with SOOK IS my life, has changed my life, has enriched my life.

This is my favorite story of an opening ceremonies several years ago.

Silence. The blond boy smiled shyly, stepped to the microphone, and raised his violin to his shoulder. The man behind him patted his back for luck and stepped back.

With a bracing breath, he placed the bow on the strings. Clear, soft notes. “Oh, say can you see….” His face mirrored his growing confidence and his determination. Each note strengthened him. I watched in bemusement, trying to remember if I had ever heard “The Star Spangled Banner” on solo violin. Pep bands, jazz bands, full orchestras, rock musicians, yes. But one lone violin simplifying this melody to its very essence? No.

The young boy continued. The audience recognized the song. The melody rang clear and true. I had never heard it so pure and clean. No harmonies or chords. Only the crystal notes of the melody.

A voice joined, singing softly, singing the words we all know. Another. Voices singing in unison. More voices. What began as a murmur rose into a chorus. No embellishments, no vocal fireworks, no mad virtuoso flights of fancy and conceit. Just a solo violin and enthusiastic voices, many far off-key.

The young boy smiled as he heard the reflecting voices.

The song built to its conclusion. Nearly 10,000 voices sang reverently, thoughtfully, never overpowering the single instrument.

I wasn’t singing, caught up in the sounds and the faces. I looked around at these beautiful Special Olympics athletes singing from their hearts—many didn’t know all the words, or the proper melody. They didn’t care, and neither did I. They were participating. They were honoring their country and their fellow athletes here, in this place, for Open Ceremonies of Oklahoma’s Summer State Games. Their sounds were not the skillful work of professional performers, here to be seen and to be heard. They were joining this chorus in love and a sense of togetherness only Special Olympics affords them.

The audience carried the soloist to his last note, held for a long moment.

Then silence. The shared experience echoed in the silence.

The young boy lowered his violin, smiling in relief, only then aware of the size of his audience as they had joined him singing, and now applauding. He bowed once, again, beaming with the pride that only comes with accomplishment.

His guide gently turned him, took his elbow, and led the sightless boy from the stage.

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