On Tuesdays and Thursdays each week, Michael Thompson becomes the favourite sight of a few dozen students at Cornwall Collegiate and Vocational School.
Thompson, a former professional lacrosse player, helped launch an after-school program at the Cornwall, Ont., high school where students play lacrosse to help earn back credits.
Thompson, who previously played for the Buffalo Bandits of the National Lacrosse League and the Peterborough Lakers in the Major Series Lacrosse league, works as a cultural adviser at the school's Native Resource Centre.
"The last couple years with COVID, a lot of kids lost credits being at home … not being able to finish up some of their work," he said.
While credits have brought some students to the school gymnasium or field to practise passing, re-string sticks and burn some energy, that's not why many come back.
"It's more of a medicine than it is a game to us," said Grade 12 student Ronwaiewate Lazore, who's been a part of the program since it began in December.
"This whole course I've never thought about the credit."
Lacrosse 'part of the religion'
The students don't just play the game, they learn about its history as a sport and its cultural significance to Indigenous people.
Thompson was born in the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne and grew up playing lacrosse, but he was raised Catholic. He said that's partly why he didn't learn about the spiritual aspect of the game until he became an adult.
"In a traditional Haudenosaunee longhouse, lacrosse is actually part of the religion," he said, referring to the style of housing used traditionally by Mohawk cultures.
"Every spring and fall we actually have a game to renew our medicines."
Lazore, who grew up with lacrosse, says the program helped him reconnect with the sport and its higher meaning, crediting it with motivating him to attend classes.
"It's something to distract you and help you through what you're going through," he said.
Lazore also said he has begun to play outside of school, walking more than three kilometres most days to the closest lacrosse box to play.
Reaching students at risk
The program was created with Indigenous students in mind, but it is open to all students at the school.
Letizia Gaibotti, a Grade 10 exchange student from Italy says she joined the program as an extracurricular to make some friends.
"I didn't even know what lacrosse was," she said.
Gaibottis said she enjoys learning about Indigenous history and cultural practices from her classmates while playing the game.
"They're happy to share this knowledge that they have with someone else that is from other countries, and I'm happy to hear what they have to say," she said.
"I'm glad [the other students] were open to me and allowed me to play."
Teacher Jennifer Suggars, who helps oversee the program, says she has learned about students in a different way, and has reached those having trouble in the classroom environment.
"We have a huge population of at-risk kids. So this program really has kids coming into the building more," said Suggars, adding some students come to lacrosse, but skip class.
"The more comfortable they feel in the school, the more they feel like this is their home, and then we can use that as an opportunity to say, 'hey, you know, how are you doing in your science class?'" she said.
Thompson said lacrosse — a sport traditionally used by Indigenous people to resolve conflict — has also been a "ticket" to keep some students out of trouble.