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Finishing strong when it counted

A couple years ago, I wanted to come up with a way to let Nolan know when he was oh-so-close to the end of another week of school. Something with few words and simple enough for a young man who has Autism and is nonverbal to understand and carry with him as he walked to the waiting school bus in front of our house.

Somehow – I still have no idea where it came from – the phrase “Finish Strong Friday” popped into my brain. Now, would it inspire Nolan to rush out the door with a take no prisoners mindset like Bluto Blutarsky’s speech did for the guys at Delta House? No. But maybe he would realize how it important it was to do all his schoolwork so that he – and for that matter, mom and dad – could go into the weekend feeling good. I tell him every Friday morning what I expect from him. I get a positive report from his paraprofessional when I pick him up? Watch out, Bill Belichick – there’s a new coach/motivational speaker/sheriff in town, and his name is Kirk Bey! I get a less-than-glowing report? The kid was wearing his headphones and running away from me, so he obviously wasn’t listening.

I found out I’m not the only one who uses “Finish Strong Friday” as a motivator. Type in the phrase on Google, and you’ll see images ranging from weightlifters to men and women doing one more rep at the gym to corporate types clad in suits bolting from the starting line on a track. But if I could choose an image to represent Nolan emerging triumphant over the five-day grind, it would be the picture of the cardinal that you see.

To me, that cardinal represents two things. One, it proves that I still have some chops in the drawing department even though it’s been more than three decades since my last art class. And two, both Nolan and I showed we could take the proverbial lemons, squeeze half a glass of lemonade out of them, and, at least for a moment, proudly thrust our arms skyward a la Rocky Balboa after he’d reached top of the stairs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gonna fly now, indeed.

Nolan is heading back to school this morning and resuming face-to-face learning after almost two weeks of virtual learning due to someone in the special education classroom testing positive for COVID-19. He had some really good moments and some very difficult ones, and I know he’ll welcome the return of his routine, even if it’s only for two days this week due to Thanksgiving break. I also know he’ll be ecstatic to see his teachers and paraprofessionals in person again rather than on a Chromebook screen, with dad either sitting or standing close by and encouraging – or maybe in his eyes, browbeating – him to do his work.

I’d like to think I’ve gotten a little better at guiding Nolan through a day of school at home since this past spring, and that he’s learning something. However, last Friday morning was flat-out awful from the get-go. I knew I was in trouble when Nolan wanted no part of signing an online birthday card for one of his classmates. One hour and 45 minutes, seven subjects, 20 trips to the bathroom, endless yelling, and about 150 headbutts to dad’s noggin later, Nolan had made it abundantly clear that he was absolutely, positively, unequivocally done with learning for the week. The paraprofessional who worked with him online told me we could be done for the day. She also told me she’d spoken to one of Nolan’s teachers, who had told her we could skip art class at 11:15 and call it a week.

Art is not what you call one of Nolan’s preferred activities. He pitched a fit and hated it so much in elementary school that the special education staff ultimately gave up on taking him to art class with his neurotypical peers. His middle school art teacher, who is engaged to Cindy’s brother-in-law’s nephew, was able to make inroads with him, and by eighth grade he was able not only to attend, but also remain in class for an extended period of time. Still, she liked to tell Cindy’s sister about the time she’d suggested to him that a particular piece he was working on would look good with some blue in it. He made one blue line with his marker or paintbrush, looked her in the eye, and set it down. Well, it did have some blue in it.

My little voice started encouraging me at a level just a couple notches below Sam Kinison level that it would be perfectly acceptable to give Nolan the rest of the day off and avoid some long-lasting bruises or a potential migraine. But then I remembered a video he’d watched earlier in the week about being resilient during difficult times. How would it look if dad said “No mas!” after telling him repeatedly to give it everything he has even though it’s the end of the week and the needle’s almost on empty? Some folks would call it hypocrisy. Others might use words I shouldn’t write here, lest I have to pony up a few bucks for the swear jar.

So, like it or not, buddy, art class and “Finish Strong Friday” were still on. And it proved to be the right decision.

I logged into Nolan’s art teacher’s Zoom link at 11:15 sharp. He suggested choosing an object that is red and drawing a picture large enough to fill an entire sketchbook page. I found a picture of a cardinal online and sketched it while Nolan surprisingly sat patiently next to me at the kitchen table (I’m sure having a 90-minute break didn’t hurt). The art teacher told me he puts on music for the students in the classroom, so I found the Classic Vinyl station on the SiriusXM app on my phone.

For years I’ve had a deep admiration for both Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, but never more so than Friday. I admit I did most of the coloring, but Nolan willingly colored part of the cardinal while I sang along to “The Wind Cries Mary” (“Somewhere a queen is weeping. Somewhere a king has no wife. … Let’s put a little more orange on the beak.”). He endured my lame attempt at an air guitar solo while Cream played “Crossroads” and filled in a couple of white spaces on the bird with the red marker (“You’re not done coloring? Hey, you can keep going, dude!”). The art teacher gave his approval when he checked back with us and wished us a good weekend.

I wish I could tell you we’re starting a new week relaxed, refreshed, and saying, “Hello, Monday – you look marvelous!” But Nolan’s behaviors were all over the place this past weekend, and his bowels were just as unstable. He got up at 4:30 Sunday morning and was on overdrive most of the day. Cindy and I tangled with him in a 10-round, meltdown-induced wrestling match at bedtime. I’d like to think we battled to a draw. My body might be telling me otherwise later this morning.

Being out of his school routine for nearly two weeks did Nolan no favors, and it really showed last Friday. But he did indeed finish strong when he needed to, and I’m very proud of him for doing so.

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