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Teen introduced to bowling by teacher becomes coach, ‘big brother’ to 6th-grader with Down syndrome
Amid the cacophony of clattering pins at the Shell Lanes bowling center in Gravesend, Brooklyn, it’s not easy to stay focused. But the teenage boy is resolute: Gently but confidently, he grasps the younger boy’s shoulders and guides him to the lane’s foul line.
“Slow down,” he says in a low voice. The younger boy nods, then winds up and lets the bowling ball fly.
They are an unlikely pair. Mike Khalifeh, a high school senior, is tall and self-assured, his expression deadpan as he casually lobs the ball down the lane. Adam, a 6th-grader, is animated and expressive, pumping his fist or grimacing exaggeratedly after each throw.
Adam, who has Down syndrome, wears hearing aids and does not always communicate clearly. But he and Mike have developed their own special shorthand, including a vigorous high-five sequence that culminates in enthusiastic hollering whenever Adam bowls a strike.
A chance encounter at the bowling alley in September 2013 led to their surprising friendship.
Gail Cohen, who has taught physical education at the David A. Boody Intermediate School of Magnet Studies (IS 228) for 27 years, is also the boys’ bowling coach at Abraham Lincoln HS. Four years ago, she encouraged Mike, one of her former middle school students, to join the bowling team.
“But I don’t know how to bowl,” Mike protested at the time.
Cohen persisted. “I’ll teach you,” she assured him.
Over the next four years, under Cohen’s tutelage, Mike developed into an accomplished bowler. But it was his meeting with an 11-year-old bowling aficionado that would change the course of his senior year.
“We noticed this boy was just bowling by himself one day,” recalls Cohen.
Adam, a 6th-grader at nearby PS 238, visited the bowling center every Monday afternoon with his aide. Having developed a passion for bowling over the last two years, Adam had his own bowling shoes and ball. But he was still bowling with bumpers, which cover the lane’s gutters to keep the ball in play.
Mike, whom Cohen describes as an “all-around good kid,” decided on a whim to strike up a conversation with Adam.
“He wasn’t smiling, and I thought, let me go over there and just put a smile on his face,” Mike recalls. “So I went over and gave him some tips, and he bowled a spare. I couldn’t believe the smile he had.”
He preserved the moment in a photo he posted to Facebook: Mike and Adam, side by side, grinning broadly.
Soon, Mike became Adam’s personal bowling coach, modeling himself after Cohen.
“Ms. Cohen taught me to bowl step by step, and that’s what I taught Adam,” Mike says.
After just three weeks, Mike and Adam agreed: no more bumpers. Thanks to Mike’s coaching, Adam continued to improve. Just a few weeks ago, he bowled his highest score ever, a 151 — more than double the average score for a child his age. That score sheet now hangs on the refrigerator in Adam’s kitchen.
“I was crying on the inside when I saw that score,” Mike confides.
Mike was soon spending time with Adam outside the bowling alley. Together, they attend sporting events at Lincoln HS, both clad in Lincoln athletic gear. Mike even joined Adam and his family for dessert on Thanksgiving.
“He feels like he’s part of the family,” said Suzanne Seidman, Adam’s mother. “Mike has been like a great big brother to Adam.”
When the bowling season ended in November, Cohen used a personal day to visit Adam’s school with Mike. They were there to read a book to Adam’s classmates, but Mike gave an impromptu speech about sports, determination and “never giving up” that resonated deeply with his audience.
“He’s a special soul,” observes Rosemarie Fisichelli, the special education coordinator and chapter leader at PS 238, Adam’s school. “He has a very loving way about him. You could tell he was a natural in terms of promoting athletics for special needs children.”
Now, although the bowling season is long over, Mike continues to spend every Monday afternoon at Shell Lanes. He is upbeat and encouraging, high-fiving Adam after every turn and stepping close to him to offer quiet words of encouragement or demonstrate a stance. Cohen sits nearby, reminding Adam to grip the ball correctly and cheering loudly when the boy bowls well.
Mike hopes to attend Stony Brook University or Kingsborough Community College in the fall. In the future, he dreams of organizing events that allow disabled children to participate in sports and plans to pursue a career in special education — thanks, in part, to a teacher who taught him how to teach others.
Mike is certain that his bond with Adam will last beyond graduation.
“I told him he’ll always be my best friend,” Mike says. “No matter what.”