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A Life-Changing Sneeze

Kendra Obermaier, Jubilate Volunteer

Achoo.  Yes, he just blew his nose on my sleeve. A smile tugged the corners of my mouth, as my eyes drifted to the small boy beside me. Nolan sat in his electronic wheel chair, his eyes riveted on our music teacher, his brows puckered, just like any skeptical student.  His body showed less defiance. Beneath the quizzical face, a cupped hand reached the remote on his wheelchair; the other was clasped close to his chest.  Out of his shorts poked his bony knees.

Nolan was my buddy in Jubilate, ICC’s special needs choir I volunteered with my freshman year. Most kids were excited to be at Jubilate. Not Nolan. Nolan struggled with some of the movements and often perceived the exercises as pointless, not because he didn’t understand them but because sometimes they were too easy. Moreover, he didn’t trust me. Why did he need a “buddy”?

But I was determined. I’ve always had this attitude that rests somewhere between perseverant and just straight stubborn. When I was homeschooled in elementary school, I made myself a schedule, getting up early every morning to practice piano, exercise, and then complete my assignments in order of most to least difficult.  In high school, I continued to push barriers, running varsity cross country as a freshman despite my inability to run fast, starting a debate club, and continuing to learn Spanish even though my school didn’t offer it. Surely, with patience and perseverance, I could connect with and help Nolan too….I was wrong. Not about connecting, but about who would help whom.

After several tantrums, Nolan realized he was stuck in Jubilate, so, little by little, he opened up to me, a smile here, a nod there. Eventually, he began telling me about his day, surprising me with his interests in physics, adventure books, and math. The more I trusted him, the more he exceeded my expectations, remembering the lyrics of songs we sang weeks ago and waving his bent arms to the music.

Over the next months, I noticed changes in my behavior. At school, I began talking to whomever I saw, thinking everyone had more potential than just what the shells of their bodies conveyed. I was more patient with my family and friends. I took more opportunities to volunteer, but it never occurred to me that I had changed because of Nolan.

Until one day … when Nolan was sick … and blew his nose on my sleeve. For the first time, he voluntarily touched me. Instantly I recalled those first weeks when he cried, pouted, and hit and how determined I was to make us connect. But relationships run two-ways. Every week, I had sat there, able to sing and move without even thinking about it, but Nolan couldn’t. So trusting me, when I was associated with this challenging task, was ten times harder for him.  However, the moment he wiped his nose, Nolan put his trust in me.

That day, I realized there’s a difference between perseverance and changing the world. Perseverance is when you move your arms even though your body tells you it hurts. But changing the world is when moving your arms teaches the person beside you that everyone, no matter what they look like, is capable of anything. Nolan taught me that we are inter-dependent, learning from each other and feeding each other, whether in a choir or in solving global issues. Nolan taught me to persevere in finding Spanish classes and running each morning. But only if perseverance is accompanied by patience, open-mindedness, and kindness can it be used to its full potential.

Because of Nolan and ICC’s Jubilate Choir, I am inspired to work in international health, where I can persevere to solve global health issues, like over-population and nutrition deficiencies, but I also want to help on an individual level, developing relationships, even if my sleeve gets used for a sneeze.

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