Hero or celebrity: don't confuse the glitter of stardom with real heroism.
Kiki Weingarten sees a disturbing trend in today's society. "Nowadays, celebrities have become a form of hero," Weingarten tells JS. She is an educational consultant who works with families in New York City. Often, she adds, we mistake mere fame for heroism.
Carlin Flora, an editor at Psychology Today, says we identify with celebrities because "we see their faces over and over" in the media. "Our brains are tricked into thinking we know these people," Flora tells JS. Many stars, including Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, are just "famous for being famous."
We need real heroes, says Flora. In finding our role models, she advises, we should measure the value of what a person contributes to the world. For example, Americans remember the bravery of the police officers and firefighters of 9/11. "We are moved by that kind of basic sacrifice," Flora explains. U.S. troops also make such a sacrifice every day in Iraq. Those people are heroes, even though we may not know their names.
Making the World Better
Last month, a New York City man made headlines when he jumped onto subway tracks to save a stranger from an oncoming train. Suddenly, everyone was calling Wesley Autrey "Superman." "I didn't think I did anything heroic," Autrey told one reporter. "I just saw someone who needed help."
Not all heroes risk their lives. Ryan Hreljac (HURL-jak) was just a first-grade kid in the Canadian province of Ontario when he read that millions of people in Africa had no clean water to drink. He started an organization to help them. Now 15, Ryan has raised more than $1.5 million to dig more than 230 wells in 11 countries.
The smallest acts can make a difference, Ryan tells JS. "You can change the world," he says. "It's like throwing a rock into a pond. You create a ripple when you do a good deed. And before you know it, there are waves all over, and the whole world is a better place."
A hero may do good deeds, but does he or she have to be perfect? No, says Detroit newspaper columnist Betty Deramus. "A hero is simply someone who rises above his own human weaknesses, for an hour, a day, a year, to do something stirring," she wrote.
Whom do kids admire most? The answer may be surprising. A 2004 poll conducted by Junior Achievement and Harris Interactive asked teens to name their most important role model. By far, the highest number--41 percent--chose their parents.
Jean Rhodes, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, says that this is a wise choice. "Although we often think of heroes as somehow larger than life, a hero can be someone in your everyday life," Rhodes tells JS. "Such heroes are all around you. They are not in magazines or on television. They are in your school, coaching your team, leading youth groups. They are in your own family."
Flora makes the same point. We admire Oprah Winfrey because she came from humble beginnings, has accomplished so much, and has been so generous. But, perhaps, so has your grandmother. "She can be as much of a role model [as Oprah], if not more," Flora says, "because you have direct contact with her."
Weingarten goes further. She thinks that everyone has the potential to be a hero. "Sometimes, being a hero can just be getting through your ordinary day," she says. Weingarten has a unique perspective on "just-getting-through." Her parents survived Nazi concentration camps during World War II (1939-1945). Although powerless as children, they persevered.
"We're all born in different circumstances," Weingarten says. "OK, so I'm not starving in India. But my circumstances can feel very difficult to me. The question is, 'What am I doing? Am I achieving what I should be?'
"Being a kid is hard," Weingarten adds. "I think if you can find out who you are, and be true to yourself, to me that is heroic."
Think About It
1. What is the most heroic thing you have ever done? Did you think about it first, or was it purely instinctive? Explain.
2. Would you rather be a hero or a celebrity when you grow up? Can a person be both? Explain.
BEFORE READING OUR ARTICLE, TAKE THIS BRIEF QUIZ.
1 Of the following, whom do you admire most?
(A) 50 Cent
(B) Bill Gates
(C) Martin Luther King Jr.
(D) Oprah Winfrey
(E) your mother or father
2 What makes a person most admirable?
(A) achieving great wealth and fame
(B) being the best at something
(C) good deeds
(D) noble sacrifice
Students should be able to:
* tell the difference between the two concepts, and understand that mere fame does not equal heroism.
* note heroic qualities in everyday people.
Ryan Hreljac's well-digging mission began small, with $70 he raised from doing chores. His first well was built in Uganda in 1999. Students may get more into, or contribute to his foundation, by visiting www.ryanswell.org.
* Critical Thinking
NOTING DETAILS: Why does the editor from Psychology Today say that nameless strangers like the police officers and firefighters of 9/11 become heroes to us? (We are moved by their sacrifice.)
DETERMINING POINT OF VIEW: Has your view of heroism changed since reading the article? If so, how? (Answers will vary.)
WORDS FOR THE WISE: Any one of the quotations in the article can be the basis for a thoughtful discussion. Divide students into small groups and assign one quote to each. Ask: What does this statement mean? What examples can you give to illustrate its meaning? You might also use one of the following quotations. Ralph Waldo Emerson: "A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer." Christopher Reeve: "I think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles." Daniel J. Boorstin (historian): "Time makes heroes but dissolves celebrities."
SOCIAL STUDIES, GRADES 5-8
* Individual development and identity: A hero may be defined many ways, and found in many places.
* Lewis, Barbara A., Kids With Courage (Free Spirit Publishing, 1992). Grades 5-10.
* Sabin, Ellen, The Hero Book (Watering Can, 2005). Grades 4-7.
* American Heroes
* Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes
* Decide whether each sentence is true, false, or an opinion. Write your answer on the blank line provided.
--6. In order to be a hero, a person must risk his or her life to save someone else's.
--7 . Wesley Autrey should be rewarded for saving the life of a man who fell onto subway tracks.
--8. Being famous, wealthy, or very good at a skill isn't enough to make someone a hero.
--9. Jean Rhodes told JS that a hero can be someone in your everyday life.
--10. The world needs more heroes.
1. True or False? E. coil is a microscopic insect. (false; bacteria)
2. In a 2004 poll, whom did 41 percent of teens choose as their most important role model? [their parents)
3. Last fall's E. coil outbreak was linked to what? (lettuce)
4. Teenager Ryan Hreljac raises money to do what? (dig wells where the poor have no clean water)
5. Most illnesses caused by E. coil 0157:H7 were traced to what? (undercooked beef)
6. What act led to people calling Wesley Autrey a Superman? (jumping onto subway tracks to rescue a stranger)