Of Catholic Schools, Down Syndrome, and Hospitality

The best portion of a good man’s life are his
little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.
William Wordsworth

I sat across the table from Miss Retseck, the principal of our parish grade school. It was spring, and we were discussing how I’d manage tuition for my kids the following fall. “You’ll have four Beckers on your hands,” I jested. And then, in passing, I added, “Of course, if Nicky wasn’t going to the public school, you’d have five.”

“The public school?” Miss Retseck shot back. “Why?”

“Well,” I faltered, “with Nick’s Down syndrome and all, we figured the public school was the best option – you know, for therapy and services.”

Miss Retseck’s eyes narrowed; her reply, solemn. “Why don’t you let us try?”

It was an epiphany. “Alright,” I said after a brief pause. “Sure. Why not?”

Miss Retseck’s sober determination to accommodate Nicky’s special needs was a watershed moment in his life and the life of our family. It cemented our vision for keeping all our children together in Catholic schools as long as we could, and it reinforced our desire to focus on Nicholas’ strengths rather than his perceived deficits.

There’s one more thing that Miss Retseck’s proposition subtly manifested that day: Our school, like our parish, was in the business of welcoming. Parish schools are perpetually strapped, and so it’s always a struggle to provide what better funded institutions take for granted. Nonetheless, Miss Retseck made it perfectly plain to me that Nick could belong at St. Matt’s School and that she’d be committed to his welfare.

Today Nicky is in fourth grade and thriving. With the help of his teachers and Miss Retseck’s successor, Mrs. Clark, we’ve cobbled together a mesh of support services, both in school and out, that has allowed Nicholas to stay at St. Matt’s and pretty much keep up with his class (with certain adjustments here and there). Plus, he couldn’t be in a better cohort – a very special group of boys and girls who’ve become his buddies. Nick sings in the choir, he has a part in the spring play, and he goes to birthday parties with the rest of the gang.

Little did Miss Retseck know what a gift she’d given us that day so long ago – what a legacy she’d initiated, and what a sign of hope she’d created for others as well. In fact, I’d say that Miss Retseck’s request accentuated three different ways that Nicky is a living emblem of what makes our parish – our Church – exceptionally hospitable. Here’s why.

First off, his very presence is a witness. To paraphrase my friend E. Michael Jones, to be a special needs student – to be any kind of student – you must first exist. That may sound strange coming from Nick’s own father, but remember that we live in world that terminates preborn Nickys at a rate upwards of nine out of every 10 diagnosed Down syndrome pregnancies. School children with Down’s are relatively rare these days not because such kids are being barred from educational opportunity so much as they’re being winnowed out of the population altogether.

At St. Matt’s, however, like most Catholic parishes and schools, kids with Down syndrome don’t stick out. Our Nick is not unique, you see, and it’s common to spot several kids with Down’s at Mass on Sunday. They’re visible and beautiful, but not uncommon. Like all the fifteen-passenger vans in the parking lot, the presence of St. Matt’s parishioners with Down syndrome is only extraordinary relative to their scarcity in the wider culture.

Another way Nicky is an emblem of hospitality is how he is cared for – how he is valued as he is. As I mentioned earlier, he’s got a great bunch of pals who include him and watch out for him. Maybe they’re vaguely aware that Nicky has special needs – that he wears orthotics and goes to therapy – but, well, that’s just Nicky! For whatever reason, this particular bunch of school children intuitively recognizes that everybody has weaknesses, everybody needs extra help now and then, and so they make room for everybody – “duh!” they’d undoubtedly add.

Did Nick luck out? Did he just happen to wind up in a class of unusually kind classmates? Maybe, but there’s more at work here I think. For one thing, remember that this is a parish where Down syndrome is unremarkable – a community already oriented to a fundamental hospitality. The kids have heard the Church’s pro-life message and they’ve internalized the Culture of Life in a radical way. Moreover, I’m convinced they’re imitating their parents in this regard as well as their teachers, who have demonstrated a tremendous flexibility in ensuring that Nicholas is an integrated member of his learning community.

Sure, they have to make accommodations for him, and it’s always a challenge to figure out how much we ought to expect from him compared to the bulk of his class, but the teachers are always willing to try – just like Miss Retseck promised. Nick might not acquire the same set of skills and knowledge as his peers – or at least not at the same rate. That’s OK, because he is constantly being pushed to grow and progress – to flourish along with all the other students at St. Matt’s. What more could we ask for?

Finally, there’s this: Nick’s gentle and simple bearing naturally invites charity, and people cheerfully respond. This was captured in a very moving way at last night’s Holy Thursday liturgy where Nicky had the honor of participating in the foot washing ceremony.

Following the homily, as Monsignor put on his apron, we took our seats on the benches set up in thesanctuary. “Do I take off my shoe now?” Nicky whispered.

“Yes, son,” I replied. “Your sock, too.”

After Monsignor washed and dried my foot, he turned his attention to Nick. “Thank you for who you are and what you bring to our parish,” the alter Christusmurmured as he knelt before us. “You always make me smile.”

And that was it. Monsignor moved on, Nicky grinned and scanned the congregation to make eye contact with mom, and we returned to our seats. No grand revelation, no spotlight, but rather a little encounter that contributed to the overall swamp of goodness that we splash around in at St. Matt’s.

It was also an illustration of what Pope Francis asserted when he said that “we all have a duty to do good.” Continuing, he said:

If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: We need that so much.

Do good, yes, and also receive good, humbly and graciously. That’s easier said than done in a society bent on maximizing self-reliance and minimizing dependency. The more we do it, however, the more we smooth over the rough edges that persist all around us, and the world becomes all that more inhabitable.

Lots of life, room for weakness, and opportunities for goodness –little opportunities, small gestures of kindness, both given and received. That’s our school in a nutshell, and I’ll bet that characterizes your parish and school as well. They’re incubators of love, and thus microcosms of the Church, don’t you think?

And just the kind of place you’d expect to find somebody like my Nicky.

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Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing on his blog, God-Haunted Lunatic, and his Facebook page.

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