Unexpected Hero

By Kelly M. Smurthwaite

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Michael’s appearance was awkward and uncool, but that day he showed me he was a hero where it mattered.

Michael was more than six feet tall, with long arms, skinny legs, thick glasses, and hair that looked as though it had been styled by a brisk wind. Michael had a passion for reading. In middle school, I’d often pass the library on my lunch break and see him with his nose in a book. We had some classes together, but I didn’t consider him a friend. I suppose the only token of friendship we shared was an occasional hurried hello or nod in the hallway between classes.

Often, I heard others say things about Michael that were anything but complimentary. He was an easy target because he was different. He was tall but not athletic. And he was always reading. I didn’t really care about him, and from what I could tell none of my peers did either.

But I began to see Michael differently one day when I least expected it—at work, teaching second-graders the basics of basketball.

Every Saturday during the fall and winter, I coach basketball and soccer for first- and second-graders. I’ve learned how to develop patience and a positive attitude because, if I’m not enthusiastic, they won’t be.

One second-grade girl in particular really knew how to test my ability to have a positive attitude. She tested the other coaches as well. We were getting ready for the day’s activities when one of the other coaches let out a huge sigh and said, “Oh, brother! She’s here.” Another coach said, “It’s going to be a long day whenever Wendy is here.”

Standing in the doorway was Wendy. She was autistic and didn’t fit in well with other children. Wendy often yelped and grunted, and she couldn’t stand still for very long. She had the habit of touching other children’s hair, which made them uncomfortable and caused disruption. Sometimes she pushed and even slapped other people, both children and coaches. I had to agree. It was going to be a long day.

Wendy walked to the middle of the gym floor, lay down, and started crying. It looked as though one of us was going to have to spend our whole day on “Wendy Patrol.”

Then something unexpected happened. In came Michael. He walked to Wendy and gently picked her up. In a voice hardly above a whisper, he calmly said, “Come on, Wendy, I’ll do the warmups with you so you won’t be alone.”

Michael was Wendy’s big brother. For the rest of the morning, he never left Wendy’s side. He was so patient and caring. I could tell that Michael loved his little sister and wanted her to fit in and be happy. Maybe he wanted those same things for himself.

I started to think about Michael’s trials. All day at school, he heard put-downs and snide comments from people who thought they were being clever. And then I thought about his home life, dealing with a sister who had a difficult condition. Yet these trials brought out the best in him. He was compassionate and Christlike.

It was at that point I recognized Michael for what he was—a hero, a true hero, right there in a small school gymnasium early on a Saturday morning.

My attitude toward Michael changed. I am grateful I was able to see a side of him I didn’t know existed. I’m grateful, too, that when Michael made eye contact with me that Saturday morning, I gave him a sincere smile. I tried to be his friend after that.

There are heroes like Michael among us. We all need heroes close by, people we can learn from and model our lives after. If I watch them long enough and pattern my life after theirs, perhaps I can one day be somebody’s hero, too.

Illustrated by Keith Larson