I started out my career teaching sixth-graders. I chose that grade specifically because even then I knew it was such an important time in a child’s life — full of change, full of promise. It’s that exciting yet scary time right before starting middle school, when you start switching from just one class all day to many; and with that comes a lot of transition and new responsibilities. It’s a lot on a young kid, and tough for many students.
Of course, it’s harder on some more than others.
Take newbie middle-schooler Bo Paske, from Tallahassee, Florida. On Tuesday, his mom Leah Paske shared a Facebook photo of the sixth-grader, sitting at the lunch table in his school’s cafeteria. In the background, kids can be seen all around — huddled together eating their sandwiches, chatting away about whatever middle schoolers chat about over lunch. But the seats around Bo remain noticeably empty.
“Several times lately I have tried to remember my time in middle school,” Paske begins her post, before recalling so many of the mixed emotions that come with starting middle school.
“Did I like all my teachers, do I even remember them? Did I have many friends? Did I sit with anyone at lunch? Just how mean were kids really? I remember one kid on the bus called me ‘Tammy Fay Baker’ bc I started awkwardly wearing eye liner in the sixth grade. I remember being tough and calling him a silly name back, but when he couldn’t see me anymore I cried. I do remember middle school being scary, and hard. Now that I have a child starting middle school, I have feelings of anxiety for him, and they can be overwhelming if I let them.”
Paske’s anxiety is normal, of course; but it’s perhaps magnified for one other reason: Bo has autism, which makes socializing at school more of a challenge. Because of that, he spends most days eating his lunch in silence, alone.
“Sometimes I’m grateful for his autism. That may sound like a terrible thing to say, but in some ways I think, I hope, it shields him. He doesn’t seem to notice when people stare at him when he flaps his hands. He doesn’t seem to notice that he doesn’t get invited to birthday parties anymore. And he doesn’t seem to mind if he eats lunch alone. It’s one of my daily questions for him. Was there a time today you felt sad? Who did you eat lunch with today? Sometimes the answer is a classmate, but most days it’s nobody. Those are the days I feel sad for him, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He is a super sweet child, who always has a smile and hug for everyone he meets.”
Tuesday afternoon was different, though. That was the day that several college football players from Florida State University paid a visit to Bo’s middle school. And when it came time for lunch, and the kids in the cafeteria all chose their seats, Bo suddenly found himself eating across from a new lunch friend: Florida State’s wide receiver, Travis Rudolph. As Paske tells Babble, she later learned from a friend at the school that Rudolph sat with Bo as soon as he saw him eating alone. Little did he know he was making not only Bo’s day, but his mom’s, too. Paske’s heartfelt post — which in less than 24 hours has earned over 8,000 shares — has been steadily going viral, and warming hearts all over Facebook.
“I am crying right now,” wrote one user. “What a beautiful picture, kind heart of Travis, and a beautiful mom who so courageously fights for her son to be all he can be!”
Paske tells Babble that she’s still in “shock and disbelief” that the post has garnered so much attention and spread so quickly, adding: “I am honored and humbled that so many people have sent love and positive words about the story.”
And there’s so much more that she wants the world to know about Bo, too. “He’s a truly happy and fantastic kid, despite the autism,” she tells Babble. “He’s funny and sweet and thoughtful of others, truly the most loving kid you would ever meet, and he gives the best hugs. He has one ready for everyone he meets.”
In sharing the sweet story, Paske also hopes it will help others understand what living with autism can be like at times, and that it serves as a reminder to always show kindness and love to everyone, despite their differences.
“Sometimes even the smallest gesture could be life-changing for somebody else, you just never know,” says Paske. “If you see somebody sitting by themselves, whether it be in the lunch room or at the park or in a classroom that it doesn’t take much to sit by that person for a minute and give him a smile or a few kind words. Bo felt so special for that few minutes, and those few minutes are priceless to me.”
While Bo’s lunch yesterday was definitely a priceless moment he’ll likely never forget, it also had an effect on Rudolph, who according to CBS News, said he read Paske’s Facebook post and it almost brought him to tears.
And when asked at a news conference after practice about his lunch buddy Tuesday, Travis simply had this to say: “He’s a cool person, I’ll hang out with him any day.”