What does it mean to be a hero? This is one of many questions triggered by recent events. While we mourn the horror of Parkland, Florida, we learn of the heroes, young and old, who gave their lives protecting others. We also watch as the teenage survivors demonstrate heroic behavior—speaking truth to power over gun policy. Meanwhile, Black Panther and the fictional African nation of Wakanda are joyfully dominating my social media feeds, at a time when we could all use a little good news. It is inspiring to see the proud and emboldened faces of young children of color who have found encouragement and connection in fictional role models who are non-white. As such I find myself pondering identity, empowerment and how I can make a difference even with decidedly average powers.
Working with high school students in pursuit of higher education, I find myself asking more questions than providing answers. Together we explore sweeping issues of why they want to go to college and what they love or value, while also considering the kind of weather they can endure and what subjects they want to study. Some of the best exchanges arise from my playful yet serious question: “what superpower would do you want?”
This approach is disarming, but the answers are telling. Responses range from telepathy to invisibility, and everything in between. Sometimes their answers are off the cuff or sarcastic, but more often the reasoning behind their paranormal desires uncover elaborate, well thought out schemes. While there are always those who want self-serving abilities—like teleportation so they don’t have to rise early for school—It is refreshing to hear how many young people want use their powers for the greater good. One student wishes for time travel so that she can go back and effect positive change. Another selflessly yearns for the power to grant infinite wishes in order to bring joy to others.
And it’s just as helpful to think of my own “superpowers” and identity, as proposed to me by my witty and insightful students. “Mindful Man,” they suggest, with the ability to find inner peace at a moment’s notice (clearly my lectures on the need to approach life with intention and non-judgmental awareness are not falling on deaf ears). Their speculations provide a window into how I am perceived by others, and it is interesting to consider what they assign to my character as a result. If I could adopt a superhero identity it would be closer to “The Consensus Kid,” an acknowledgment of both my Quaker heritage and my hope to embody childlike joy. Using this power, I would unite disparate groups, building connection and collaboration for the common good. From the United Nations and the halls of Congress to the streets of my town and the hallways of my school, I would harness my abilities to inspire kindness and combat polarization. I know, perhaps an ambitious goal, but what do we have if not heroic aspirations. What power would you choose? What does it say about you?
Among my many heroes are well-known fearless leaders, from Harriet Tubman and Mother Teresa to Thich Nhat Hanh, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dalai Lama. Then there are the hero leaders within my profession who despite an imperfect and anxiety producing selective admission climate are willing to speak up in support for student activists, DACA students, and those committed to the common good. Stu Schmill (MIT), Whitney Soule (Bowdoin College), Rick Clark (Georgia Tech), Deb Shaver (Smith College) Lee Coffin (Dartmouth College), Angel Perez (Trinity College), Jon Boeckenstedt (DePaul University) and countless others use their relative “powers” to reinforce values of equity, caring and ethical engagement in young people. Who are your heros? Who speaks to your identity?
Whether you are applying to college or pursuing a life well lived, these heroic lessons provide an opportunity to consider identity and meaning. You need not be a royal superhero trying to save your nation from a Killmonger. Nor must you risk your life in the face of tragedy. There is living proof that heroes are all around us who don’t possess supernatural powers, but rather a dedication to positive change and the common good. What heroic gesture will you make today and how will it reinforce your identity and display true character? If you live your truth, that is heroic in itself.