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Real Heroes

By Dennis Denenberg

William Penn was an obsession for Elaine Peden, the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine reported in 1991. Peden had devoted enormous time and energy to promoting recognition of Pennsylvania's founder. In 1984, she had persuaded Congress to extend honorary United States citizenship to both Penn and his wife, Hannah. But Peden's successes in bringing Penn into the consciousness of Americans had been soured for her by disappointments. When she visited the restored William Penn statue on top of Philadelphia's City Hall, she expected to see again in the waiting area the 75 paintings of events in the life of the Penns done by high school students. Instead she found a blowup of the Phillie Phanatic, the cartoonish mascot of the city's professional baseball team. The city's founder was out; the city's newest fantasy figure was in.

The situation is not much better at our country's official museum. A few years ago, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History published a new brochure to guide kids through the museum. It is written around the Charles Schulz "Peanuts" characters, with their pictures everywhere. So, today we have Snoopy leading our kids around our national history museum—instead of Sacagawea who led Lewis and Clark across our nation!

Two years ago, the U.S. Mint began issuing special quarters (five a year for 10 years) to honor all of our 50 states. Guess who the Mint is using in its advertising campaign to call attention to this worthwhile endeavor? Perhaps one of the heroes pictured on some of the quarters, such as Delaware's Caesar Rodney who, despite suffering from asthma and cancer, rode 80 miles on horseback to Philadelphia, arriving at Independence Hall just in time to cast the deciding vote in favor of our nation's independence. Or perhaps the famous Minutemen—a statue of one graces the Massachusetts quarter—those always-at the-ready farmers and colonists who rallied together to help defeat the British during the Revolutionary War. Or perhaps those who risked their lives to settle the West, build the railroads, or design our great bridges. No, none of these. The U.S. Mint chose instead, as the icon for its honor-the-states educational initiative—are you ready—Kermit the Frog, decked out as what appears to be (although no one seems to know for sure) George Washington—or one of those guys in the funny colonial hats and cape.

Classrooms and homes around the United States duplicate this pattern. Pictures of great people have given way to fantasy creatures. At one time many—if not most—public school classrooms in America displayed portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Today, if such portraits appear at all, it is usually for a two-week period in February, during Presidents' Day commemorations.

I have visited hundreds of classrooms over the past 20 years. I have talked with teachers, observed displays, and examined curriculum materials; and I have become aware of how fantasy figures compete with real-life heroes for students' attention. Often, the fantasy ones are winning.

Cartoon and other fantasy characters pervade children's lives. Little Mermaids and Elmo adorn the clothing kids wear and the lunch pails they carry. A little girl gets up in the morning. Her head probably rested on a Powerpuff Girls pillowcase. She goes down to breakfast and eats cereal from a box with a cartoon character on it, then gets dressed in a T-shirt with Rugrats on it, picks up her Pokemon lunch pail, and heads off to school where there is a bulletin board with more cartoon figures on it.

Teachers and parents choose such materials so frequently, they tell me, because they believe these figures have motivational value. Cartoon mice and ducks are familiar. "They can be comforting to kids" parents and teachers say.

Perhaps fantasy characters motivate and comfort. But junk food motivates and comforts, too. Like junk food, popular fantasy and cartoon characters are sweet, enticing to the eye—and empty of real value. Like junk food, they displace what is more important. They fill kids up. The kids no longer hunger for the nourishment they need to become healthy, fully mature adults.

Is it any wonder that teenagers become hooked on the next level of fad fantasy figures—the super-rich athletes and popular culture rock and entertainment stars. Their presence in the media is everywhere, with entire cable channels devoted to the icons of music and athletics. So the Rugrats T-shirts eventually become Aerosmith shirts, Powerpuff Girls backpacks become WWF (World Wrestling Federation) duffel bags, and the very innocent Little Mermaid poster in a child's bedroom is replaced by a nearly life-sized one of Britney Spears.

The over-presence of fantasy characters in our culture and in our schools and homes contributes, I am convinced, to a confusion for our children and adolescents about the value of real-life human accomplishments. It is not surprising that in 1991, when a Harrisburg, Pa.-area school district asked its fifth- to 12th graders to name people they most admired, the teenagers chose rock stars, athletes, and television personalities—people who often seem to be larger than life. Other than Nelson Mandela, no famous people from any other field of endeavor were mentioned. No great artists, inventors, humanitarians, political leaders, composers, scientists, doctors—none were mentioned by the 1,150 students.

Likewise, when the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain asked a representative sample of 25- to 45- year-olds to write a two-page essay about their favorite hero, there were a lot of blank pages; 60 percent of the group said they have no personal heroes.

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I frequently am asked to give presentations on why heroes are important for children. I sometimes begin by putting on the familiar Mickey Mouse ears, and I lead my adult audience in a rousing rendition of the "Mickey Mouse Club" song. Almost everyone knows the words. Then I switch to a colonial hat and recite a portion of Thomas Jefferson's immortal words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident...." I ask the audience to join me as soon as they know the words of our birth certificate, the Declaration of Independence. While most adults can, I ask them, "How many of our young people could repeat those words?" The comparison with the Mickey Mouse song leads to a spirited discussion of what has happened to real heroes in our culture.

"Look around," I say to my audiences. "You're surrounded by people. Count 30 people, yourself among them. One of that 30 would probably have polio if it weren't for Jonas Salk. That's how prevalent polio was. But when Salk died a few years ago, we as a nation hardly took notice. Certainly, few young people have any sense of how that great doctor saved their generation from a crippling disease."

Have we lost a generation of people who don't have heroes, who don't know what a hero is or don't understand what a positive influence a hero can be in a person's life?

A hero is an individual who can serve as an example. He or she has the ability to persevere, to overcome the hurdles that impede others' lives. While this intangible quality of greatness appears almost magical, it is indeed most human. And it is precisely because of that humanness that some individuals attain heroic stature. They are of us, but are clearly different.

We look to heroes for inspiration. Through their achievements, we see humankind more positively. They make us feel good. They make us feel proud. Their successes and failures lead us to ponder our own actions and inactions. By learning about their lives, our lives become enriched.

We have to stop hiding real heroes from students. In our classrooms and homes, we must help the next generation discover the excitement of meeting great men and women.

There are literally hundreds of exciting ways to bring real heroes to life. First and foremost, read about them. So many quality biographies are now available by superb children's authors (Hakim, Freedman, Meltzer, Fritz, Adler, and others)-- yet teachers and parents rarely choose a biography when they read aloud to their kids. Make it part of your adult responsibility to transmit heroes to the next generation.

Once kids have met these extraordinary heroes, engage them in meaningful projects to make the hero a real presence in your classroom and home. Celebrate Teddy Roosevelt's birthday. Put a picture of Wilma Rudolph or Daniel Hale Williams or Elie Wiesel or John Muir on the refrigerator and engage the kids in a mystery hero hunt. Every semester my college "soon-to-be-teachers" students hold a heroes' fair. Hundreds of local fifth- through seventh-graders come to campus to see and meet hundreds of heroes. The most thrilling aspect of this whole event is that now schools are doing their own versions of heroes' fairs and a wide assortment of special events. And, guess what? The kids love it!

In a wonderful Aug. 6, 1995, Parade Magazine article entitled, "Who Are Our Heroes?" the noted historian Dr. Daniel Boorstin explained the difference between heroes and celebrities in a brilliant few sentences. I hope intermediate grade and higher teachers will consider making this quotation a poster for their classrooms—what a dialogue it could spark.

The hero is known for achievements, the celebrity for well-knownness. The hero reveals the possibilities of human nature. The celebrity reveals the possibilities of the press and the media. Celebrities are people who make news, but heroes are people who make history. Time makes heroes but dissolves celebrities.

No doubt many parents and teachers have already taken up the cause. It is time for the rest of us to return great individuals to the pedestals they deserve. Young people need to see that humans can and do make a difference. Children can learn that they too are capable of reshaping life in a positive way. By reintroducing heroes to children, parents and teachers can show them that there are real people worthy of recognition and emulation.


Dennis Denenberg is a professor of education at Millersville University in Millersville, Pa.