Heroism is a bit of a strange concept, isn’t it?
Sometimes there is a bit of traditionalism when the word “hero” comes to mind: square-jawed, flowing cape, a selfless and invincible statue of a human coming to the rescue. During one of my final weeks in grad school, I was asked by a professor to describe one of my heroes, and how I could be a hero to others. The answer didn’t come easy. It wasn’t because of the stereotypical archetype. Of course I never knew anyone in real life who was square-jawed, and capes look far too silly in person. No, it is because the ideal of human infallibility has always been a completely foreign concept to me.
My heroes, unfortunately, have too often not turned out what I hoped them to be, and too often did I have to learn that maybe the best we could hope for is a flawed reflection of our hopes, and a bit of delusion in our hearts. Too often I thought that maybe heroes don’t exist. Of course, I was thinking too much on the concept of heroism, instead of thinking about the people who inspire us, who challenge us to be better, to force us to look in the mirror and say “you already know what it feels like to give up; let’s see what happens when you don’t.”
When I was about 22, I mentored troubled inner city youths–kids who were on the wrong path and could potentially grow up to end up being convicts or corpses, with not much space in between. This was not a glamorous job, nor was it a job. I was volunteering as a favor to a friend, who didn’t have the time to spend with these kids, and needed someone to come in a couple of evenings to over for her. Of course, at 22 I was not much more than a kid myself, so perhaps the little bit of chronological authority I held could be used to my advantage.
I remember when I first saw this group of teens. They were rough. They did not have easy lives. Some of them would later die or be incarcerated due to their decisions (or, if we’re being honest, their circumstances). All of them were pretty loud, pretty confident about their place in the world, and pretty certain that the life they lived was the only life possible.
College? That’s for white folks.
Jobs? That’s for suckers; real money is made in the streets.
Futures? Well, this story is going pretty much like every Michelle Pfeiffer film in the 90s went, so we already know what they think about the future.
There was one kid, who I’ll call John here, who had a spark within him that I did not see with the other children. He was detached, analyzing everyone and everything around him, soft mannered but never afraid to speak up when he had to. He chose all of his words carefully, never had a temper tantrum, but joined a pretty rough gang due to either peer pressure or boredom. And of course, he was an accessory to a crime and needed to be set on the right track before it was too late for him, as is the case with most kids who find trouble at an early age.
At first, he was unresponsive to all of my attempts to get him to open up. He wasn’t interested in any weekend activities or books I recommended or movies I brought over to watch. He had already decided he was dead to the world, just like everyone else has decided to sign their death certificates a decade and a half into life, so he was going to be dead in that classroom–at least, on the few evenings he would attend.
I wasn’t the best coach, at first. I did the typical “bring a book to lecture to them about” or “this movie was made by people who have no idea what life in the streets is like”. After being bored of the same routine after a few months, I went around the room and asked the kids about their aspirations and dreams. I asked them not to think of the end goals, but the paths they would like to be on and the lives they would like to live if they had an opportunity to choose what they want to be. Many of the answers were not surprising: basketball, football, Scarface, rapper. These were the options presented to them as dreams. These were the fantasies that very few actually get to live. Especially the Scarface part. And if they actually watched the movie, they’d cross that off their short list, as well.
After we went around the room, I looked to John, who did not share a thing. I decided to continue with the lesson. I told all of the kids in that classroom that they have to not only aspire to be something more than the situations they find themselves in the present, but allow themselves to be inspired so they can excitedly look forward to the future. I would tell them, “achieve to be your best, but never think you are better than anyone else. If you find the hidden spark and the untapped potential within yourself and within others, you will discover a better world.”
I then turned to the reserved boy and said, “John, what do you aspire to be?”
After a long pause, he responded with just one word: “Alive.”
That word was more authentic than anything I had been saying for the 35 minutes previous. So the next few weeks I was able to get him to talk more. We discussed a sibling who died to gang violence, a father that wasn’t there for him (even for his sibling’s funeral), a mother who could not wait until he got out of the house, and an impossible dream he had: to become a lawyer. “Why would you want to be a lawyer?” I asked him. “I want to know why these bulls*** laws are written.” A simple yet profound answer to a simple question. It was in that moment of authenticity, in that moment of truth, that I was able to witness John come out from out of his shell and become an active participant in the remaining classes I would coach.
Something must have clicked in the few years since. About two years ago, that quiet and reserved but troubled kid let me know he had graduated from college. Not just any college: law school! He finished law school! He was one step closer to the dream he had when the world was four corners and body bags. He learned how to question his standing in life, question why society has apparently been built against his favor, and sought the answers to those questions. He thanked me personally for giving him the inspiration to fight for a better tomorrow and find the spark that was hidden within to discover a better world.
Little did he know that he has instead inspired me to embrace the positive nature within myself and not let the weaker sins lurking within us all get the better of me. He said I was a hero to him; sorry, kid, but you are my hero.
Seeing his evolution from a troubled kid with a criminal history before he was old enough to smoke, to a productive and positive part of our justice system, inspired me to spend more time working on myself. I realized that we, no matter the age, no matter our standing in life, are always a work in progress with the ability to transform into something better. If we did not have the chance to grow, to learn, to improve, to adapt, we would not be living; we would merely be existing. If I can take John’s story and inspire one person each day to take a step beyond their misconceptions and misunderstandings about themselves and the world around them–to lose those 10, 15, 20 pounds, to write that book you’ve been meaning to write since you were 15, to have the courage to tell your boss you are human–to do more than just exist and become an active participant in this amazing gift we have called life, I would feel like a large part of my mission to be a catalyst for positive change in people is complete.
And maybe we can all help inspire more Johns to teach their mentors lessons about life and change.
I would never consider myself a hero in any sense. To be bestowed with such a title requires others to recognize an inherent good within you that you yourself only see as natural, and even then, one should never take that title too personally. We’re human. It is only right that we treat each other with respect and dignity.