By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
From a distance I watched my son Patrick march down the aisle, the tassel on his mortarboard bobbing with each step he took toward his place at St. Ambrose University’s winter commencement ceremony. A lump formed in my throat when I spotted him.
The Pomp and Circumstance Graduation March song that played as the graduates entered the River Center in Davenport on Dec. 16 evoked memories of Patrick’s victory over adversity. He told me recently that his graduation from St. Ambrose would be his best Christmas gift ever. I wholeheartedly agreed.
His elementary and junior high school years challenged him emotionally and socially. Steve and I, as his parents, were left to pick up the pieces, wondering why he struggled to be understood and get along well with others.
While his older brother Colin has autism, an autism consultant assured us when Patrick was young that he would model his parents’ behavior. Sometimes, though, he witnessed us responding in anger and frustration to autistic behavior. Patrick began to develop zero tolerance for distractions of any kind — whether it was someone “shushing,” humming or a baby whining.
I prayed, sometimes through tears, for him to overcome his social challenges. God answered my prayers in subtle ways. One of the turning points in Patrick’s life occurred during seventh grade, when a teacher asked him: “Is this really worth a detention?” From then on, our son posed that question to himself in his interactions with other kids. The detentions stopped.
Patrick built on his socialization skills and developed lasting friendships with a group of students who are Evangelical Christians. They helped him to understand that the most important relationship he has is with God. A couple of friends attended his graduation ceremony last weekend.
Prior to attending St. Ambrose, Patrick earned an Associate of Arts degree from Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids. While there, he attended Mass at St. Ludmilla Catholic Church where the pastor and deacon welcomed him warmly.
Our son also felt welcomed at St. Ambrose University, where he thrived participating in group projects and even made a service trip down south to assist with cleanup of the Mississippi River.
During last weekend’s commencement address, Mary Heinzman told the graduates about a book she is reading, “Small Great Things” by Jodi Picoult. The author’s inspiration for the title came from a speech that civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. gave. In that speech he said: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”
It isn’t what you do that matters, it’s the quality of the things you do, observed Heinzman, the executive director of Information Resources for St. Ambrose University. She encouraged the graduates to think about one small thing they could do in a given situation to make a difference.
St. Ambrose University President Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, asked the graduates to look around the room at all of the people who loved and accompanied them through their journey to graduation. “Journeys like this are rarely accomplished alone,” she noted. One of the hallmarks of the university is a commitment to service. She asked the graduates to “continue your commitment to service, giving back to the community. In that way, you will honor our mission of enriching lives.”
Many people have loved and accompanied Patrick on his life’s journey. His graduation from St. Ambrose University is a Christmas gift he will unwrap for years to come as he continues to do small things in a great way and strives to enrich the lives of others.
(Editor Barb Arland-Fye can be reached at email@example.com.)