Do you skate?
By John Gray
Once upon a time there was a little boy without a father growing up in a small town in Canada. Being without a dad is tough on any child, but especially so in a tiny town where everyone knows your business. One day the boy’s mother saw a flyer posted on a bulletin board that advertised a mentoring program; call it Canada’s version of Big Brothers Big Sisters. She took it down and quickly tucked it into her coat pocket as if there was some shame in asking for help raising a boy alone. The crumpled piece of paper sat in that pocket for a couple of weeks until a combination of worry and exhaustion made her flatten it out on the kitchen table and dial up the number.
After filling out an application and waiting a few more weeks, she and her young prince charming stood nervously at the door of their modest home waiting for this stranger to come into their lives. He couldn’t have been 30, standing there with his hat in his hands, faded jeans and a flannel shirt. After the briefest of conversations with the mother, this hulk of a man turned his attention to the child.
He didn’t ask the little boy if he liked movies or bowling. He didn’t wonder if the child liked to read or play make-believe as most 5-year-olds do. Instead, the very first words he spoke were three words that would change the child’s life forever, “Do you skate?”
This was Canada after all, a place where most babies are born with a pair of ice skates already laced on. The boy looked down at the floor and in a voice no more than a whisper said, “No sir.” The stranger smiled at the mother then looked back at the child and said, “Well, you will because that’s what I do, skate, and I’m good and soon enough you’ll be skating circles around me.” Little did the man know how right he would be.
For the next few years, the kind man in the faded jeans taught our lad how to skate and shoot a puck and push back when someone tried to bully him on the ice. The young boy was soon a big boy and the best hockey player in every league in which he played. Thirteen years later when it came time to choose a college, he had schools all over Canada and the United State’s begging him to attend. He chose Union College in Schenectady because it was a top notch school and wasn’t too far a drive if he wanted to get home to see his mother.
And that is how I came to meet him. You see, one day I was doing a TV story on our local Big Brothers Big Sisters program and they told me I had to meet this incredible young hockey player from up North. As busy as he was with his studies and playing on the Union hockey team (division one, the highest level) he found time to sign up with our local Big Brother’s program as a mentor because he wanted to give something back, to ‘pay it forward’, if you will.
They matched him with a young African American boy from one of the toughest streets in Schenectady. Standing face to face on the front steps of a home in Hamilton Hill this child looked up at the man from Canada in his faded jeans and had to be wondering one thing, “What does this white man who talks funny want with me?” And our friend from the north didn’t ask if the child liked cookies or the playground or going to Crossgates Mall to shop. Instead, he asked just three little words that changed a life those many years ago, “Do you skate?”
That story is a true story told to me by that very hockey player a few years ago on the Union college campus. He was there with his “little brother” teaching him how to ice skate. I don’t know how the story ends, because like a seed that is planted in early spring, it’s impossible to know what fruit this tree may someday bear. The mere act of planting the seed brings possibilities, however, that were never there before. I’d like to think that child, who must be in his early teens now, is on a path that has nothing to do with hockey, but everything to do with manhood. Put on that path by a man who did little more than hold his hand and teach him to skate circles around a frozen piece of ice.
It’s August already, which means half the year has already melted away. I wonder how many of you made a New Year’s resolution to be a better person or give something back this year. How many of us see a flyer advertising a walk for cancer or a dinner for juvenile diabetes and tell ourselves this is the year we’ll sign up, volunteer, raise a few dollars? I don’t fault you for not doing it, life is busy and as my Dad used to tell me, “Many roads we travel are paved with good intentions.” All I’m saying is, I don’t believe in coincidences. There’s a reason you picked up this magazine today and turned to this back page and it has nothing to do with me. This is about you and getting into the game.
I have a friend who delivers meals once in a while to the Ronald McDonald House. She doesn’t have to tell me what day she delivers the food to these families who are caring for a sick child, I can tell by the spring in her step. The days she helps there is a glow about her. Like most people who “pay it forward” she gets as much out of it as the people she is trying to help. That’s the prize at the bottom of the Cracker Jack box, you see. You set out to help others and end up helping yourself.
The Capital Region is a wonderful place to live, filled with dozens of charities and organizations that make it their business to find cures, give comfort and change lives. They can’t wait to meet you. Whether you volunteer once a year with Special Olympics or spend a $100 to knock a golf ball around raising money for ALS, they are just waiting and hoping you’ll show up. And don’t tell me you don’t have the time or skills needed to make a difference. Do you know they have a room at the Children’s Hospital at Albany Med. where volunteers sit and play with sick and injured children? That’s it. Just being there to keep them company is the gift you give.
I like making you laugh, and those of you who have read this back page before know I can joke around about a lot of things. I sat down this month ready to write something silly about women’s fashion, but something kept pulling me north. Up to a town I’ll never visit and a man I’ll never meet who had to think they were crazy at Big Brothers Big Sisters to want him to mentor a child. After all, all he was ever good at was skating. But he took a chance and ended up saving a life that day and carving a masterpiece in the ice with that little boy he helped.
What are you waiting for? In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “You cannot do a kindness too soon because you never know how soon it will be too late.” Or to put it another way: “Love is like manure. It’s of no use unless you spread it around.” So get off you butt, grab a shovel and start spreading.
John Gray is a Fox23 News anchor and contributing writing at the Troy Record. He can be reached at email@example.com