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The Beauty of Cheering for Strangers

Jamie Sumner
Special needs mom and author
11/02/22  11:12 AM PST

My Son Taught Me the Beauty of Cheering for Strangers

I have run in a half marathon and the night before I wasn’t even going to do that. Who in their right mind would pay to run 13.1 miles on unfamiliar roads surrounded by strangers? Me, apparently. A friend talked me into it and so I signed up on impulse. I didn’t train because I wasn’t really going to do it. But when I woke up on the chilly April morning of the race, I realized I was too cheap to waste the entry fee and also a teensy bit curious to see what it was like. So, I pulled on my expensive “free” race t-shirt and did it. And you know what? It was actually fun. Don’t get me wrong, the running part was just so-so, but the atmosphere was incredible.

As I wound my way around downtown Nashville, I got a view of my city that I had never seen. I jogged over the pedestrian bridge with my fellow runners who huffed “keep going” and waved at each other after checking their Apple watches. Volunteers handed out tiny cups of water and huge bananas. My husband met me at various stops and blasted rock music. But the best part, beyond the feeling of accomplishment or the comradery with other runners or the support of my spouse, was the strangers cheering on the sidelines. I had painted my name on my arm as had many others so that when I turned down urban side streets, I would hear “Go Jamie! You got this! Four miles to go!” from people I didn’t even know. I felt like a celebrity, a star athlete, or maybe just a person who was seen and loved for this particular moment in time by someone I had never met.

My son Charlie who has cerebral palsy and is mostly nonverbal is the best cheerleader I know. When he was in preschool, I would pick him up each afternoon and take him to a park nearby with a giant climbing area, one handicapped swing, and a huge winding path. After we wore out the swing, I would push him in his wheelchair along the asphalt under the oak trees. There were dog-walkers, joggers, cyclists, roller-bladers, moms with strollers, workers on their lunch break in skirts and suits and tennis shoes. Charlie waved to them all with such vigor that he would shake his body, his chair, and me in the process. It was awesome. Most times, the passersby would laugh and wave and continue on their way. But sometimes he would wave a second too late and they would miss it, so I would lean down and chant in his hear, “Go Charlie go—nice wave, kiddo!” and he would clap.

I’ve never asked one of these recipients of Charlie’s waves how they feel afterwards, but I can imagine it is a lot like I felt at that marathon – like someone saw something special in me worth celebrating.

I believe there is some magic to cheering for a stranger. I believe it can lift us up as much as it does them – I think that’s why Charlie does it. He feels the joy as acutely as they do. I think it can carry us out of the internal funks we tend to settle into when we live inwardly for such large parts of our days.

I have not run a half-marathon since that first one. One was enough. But I have stood on the sidelines for several more. I have set up lawn chairs and painted signs and passed out snacks. I have yelled until my throat grew hoarse and lost my voice for these people unknown to me but worthy of celebrating because they are doing something wonderful and exciting and also, just because they got up on a Saturday, threw on some Spandex, and got themselves out the door. It raises my spirits every time. So, I would encourage you, if you are in need of a mood boost or perhaps a little time outside your head, to take a lesson from Charlie and go cheer some people on, both strangers and friends.

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