Friday, July 2, 2010

Real Courage

For many years, I taught sophomores in high school. To Kill a Mockingbird was one of my favorite books to teach, and I looked forward to sharing it with students every year. Fifteen and sixteen year old students could still identify with Jem, Scout and Dill’s fears about Boo Radley. They remembered when they too feared monsters under the bed or around the corner, and they could appreciate the truth that unfolds in the end: sometimes, real dangers come dressed as the neighbors. That was indeed the case when Jem witnessed the destructive nature of intolerance and racism.

After we shared the novel and its inspirational messages about courage and conviction, I asked students to write about a modern-day Atticus, someone who is an extraordinary role model for others. I was always disheartened to read about celebrities and famous people, many of whom had not led an exemplary life. When I asked my students to reconsider, they countered that those celebrities demonstrated courage by admitting to their faults, by simply showing up in spite of being criticized and even condemned.

I had to admit that my students had a point. Sometimes simply getting out of bed and showing up require everything we have to give. I know that, but I wanted my students to demand more of themselves by demanding more of adults, including celebrities. I wanted them to believe that the man next door could be a fine role model because he tries to do his best every moment of his life. I wanted them to recognize beauty and goodness within ordinary people.

Most of us will never drive by just after a driver has run his car off the road into frigid water. We will not have to choose between dialing 9-1-1 before driving on or risking our lives to save the driver of the sinking car. We will never pass by a burning building, forced to face down our fears of fire to respond to cries for help. Most of us will not serve in our nation’s military, become policemen and women or firefighters. Indeed, most of us will never be tested in a life or death scenario, but does that mean few of us are truly brave?

No, ordinary people, like that GI in 1945, can simply do the right thing in the right moment and be transformed into a hero remembered for the ages—at least in the heart of one other person and that is what I hoped my students would take from To Kill a Mockingbird.

We rely upon others to perform the necessary, but unpleasant acts that society needs done. As Miss Maudie says to Jem, “some men in this world are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us... your father is one of them.” So are soldiers, police officers, fire fighters, mothers, fathers, and ordinary citizens. Their stories may never be told in a prize-winning novel, in Reader’s Digest’s regular feature entitled “Heroes,” or on the nightly news; they may never be the family on Extreme Makeover, and they may never enjoy a ceremony held in their honor, but they deserve acclaim nevertheless.