In the Footsteps of Heroes

On Saturday, the eighth grade will embark on a journey to Washington D.C., Antietam National Battlefield, and Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. These historic places invite us to remember. They invoke the sacrifices of women and men who dedicated their lives to advancing the ideals of this nation: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

One morning, our eighth graders will visit Arlington National Cemetery – the final resting place for more than 400,000 active duty service members, veterans, and their families.

In the heart of this hallowed place lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This tomb represents the thousands of soldiers who died while serving our country — but whose remains were never identified and therefore could not be brought home to be laid to rest. It is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – in every kind of weather – by a special honor guard.

Four of our students will have the honor of laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In order to be considered for this opportunity, students had to compose an essay describing a personal hero. A committee of five faculty – Mr. Snyder, Ms. Elliott, Mr. Jacob, Ms. Peninger, and myself — were honored to read these thoughtful, heartfelt essays. It was very difficult to narrow the field down to four! I offer my gratitude to every student who submitted their work.

Let me share with you excerpts from each of the selected essays.

When you turn on the news or flip through pages of a history book, you will encounter stirring stories of people fleeing war-torn countries in search of refuge, safety, and a chance at a better life. Tai shares the story of his grandfather Sang, who lived in Vietnam during a time of intense crisis: The Vietnam War.

He writes:

When South Vietnam surrendered to North Vietnam on April 30, 1975, my grandfather knew he had to flee. He started to evacuate each of his eight children, including my dad. He got each child and his wife to the boating dock on a moped. . . All of them boarded a fishing boat in hopes of being rescued. They sailed the South China Sea for multiple days, but still with no sense for rescue. One day, my grandfather saw an American aircraft carrier and waved for help. Eventually, everyone in my grandfather’s family was headed toward the United States.

After spending time at a military camp in Hawaii and then a refugee camp in Arkansas where they studied English, the family found their way to Dallas. Tai continues:

Sang is a hero to me because he had the courage and bravery to get his family out of a tough situation in Vietnam and to a new life in America . . . What Sang really wanted was to get his family to safety and freedom, and once he did that, he wanted his children to have a good education and a roof over their heads. Yes, Sang had to start a new job in a new country where he barely spoke the language, but that is what made him special. He was willing to start a new life so his eight children could be happy and have a better life.

Clara tells the story of the woman for whom she is named: Clara Barton – the Civil War battlefield nurse who founded the American Red Cross. She describes how Clara began her life of service early, nursing her injured brother back to health as an 11-year-old and teaching a classroom of 40 children when she was a shy 18-year-old. When the war broke out, she found a new calling. Clara writes:

A true patriot, Clara longed to be a soldier like her father, but knew that women would not be allowed in battle. She found a way to take her nursing skills to the battlefield to aid soldiers. [At first] Clara volunteered in the hospital caring for the wounded soldiers. Due to the lack of field hospitals, she realized that countless soldiers were dying before they could receive treatment. Once again, she saw a problem and immediately responded with selfless action. Fearlessly she went to the front lines of some of the most deadly Civil War battles to help soldiers where they fell, which had never been done before. [Her actions] earned her the nickname “the angel of the battlefield.”

I look at her as my hero because even 103 years after her death, through the founding of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton touches the lives of ordinary American people every day. . .

I hope, as I live my life, that I might be moved to be a hero by finding inspiration in her actions to respond to the needs of others without selfish motivation.

Harper describes a category of heroes that is near and dear to my heart – and, I hope, to yours: teachers. She notes, “A hero doesn’t have to be famous or have endured hardship. They don’t have to have lived a life fit to be the subject of a novel, but heroes always strive to elevate themselves and others by living a life that teaches and inspires.”

To illustrate her point, she shares the story of her Aunt Holly, a woman she describes as hardworking, creative, and inquisitive. Harper writes:

Teachers have tremendous power to influence others through their work both inside and outside of school. My Aunt Holly, always a visionary, cannot help but act when she sees a need in her community. In fact, she jumps at the opportunity to solve the problem. For example, she founded the first strings program for the school in which she works, and through it, she has taught hundreds of students. Every other year, she plans a school trip in which she accompanies hard-working and dedicated students while they perform in concerts all over Europe. My Aunt Holly not only helps her students develop their musical skills, but she provides them with priceless memories and treasured personal relationships that they have for life.

William Arthur Ward once said, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” My Aunt Holly is a great teacher, and I am proud to call her my hero because the way she lives her life empowers me to be like her.

Maddie explains that “a hero is an average person with a desire to do good” and who has the “strength and perseverance” to turn this desire into a way of life. Here in the middle school, we often talk about the importance of taking risks – and how we can learn and grow from setbacks. Maddie shares a vivid example of this from the life of her hero: her father. She writes:

In the fall of 2013, after five years of deep thought and discussion, my father ventured into politics and ran for the District 60 Texas State House of Representatives.

Despite running against an incumbent who held the position for 19 years, my father was not daunted by the challenge, but encouraged by it. With supporters throughout the district, my father spent his days walking the streets of neighborhoods, spreading his message and his commitment to Texas. There were doors that were opened and doors that were closed, but he continued to knock.

March 6, 2014 was Election Day. As the polls closed, the count rolled in along with a range of emotions. There was elation when he was ahead. There was disappointment when he fell behind. Unfortunately, my father lost that night, but he gained something else. He gained strength . . .

My father is my hero. He taught me to be optimistic and dedicated to everything I do. He taught me that winning is not the only way to victory. He taught me that having a voice means making a difference.

These essays remind me that heroes are not people who have been granted some special superpower. They are ordinary individuals who – when they see the needs of others – step forward and say, “I will help.” The great Mr. Rogers once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ . . . I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.”

May we strive to follow in the footsteps of the many, many heroes and helpers who have left this world better than they found it.

Photo courtesy of the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. 

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