A positive role model serves as an example—inspiring children to live meaningful lives.—M. Price-Mitchell, PhD
I hadn’t thought of my fifth-grade teacher for a very long time until last week, when I read Garrison Keillor’s November 19th post on the daily Writers’ Almanac, my daily accompaniment to my first cup of morning coffee.. https://www.garrisonkeillor.com. The Almanac is a delightful blend of literary history and a daily featured poem. On the morning of the 19th, however, it wasn’t the poetry he featured but the snapshots of literary history. He reminded his readers that November 19th was the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, remembered as one of the greatest of American speeches. Less than 300 words long and only ten sentences, Lincoln wrote it to deliver at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where one of the bloodiest battles of the US Civil War had taken place.
I can still recite much of the Gettysburg address by heart, many, many years after reciting it in a show for parents of my fifth-grade classmates. I revered Lincoln and had, ever since my maternal grandfather gave me a volume of Childcraft (a children’s encyclopedia) two years earlier when he visited. Crippled since childhood, he had traveled by Greyhound bus from Los Angeles to Northern California to see us, his first and only time. After he left, I pored over the Childcraft volume again and again, memorizing poetry, reading—and re-reading—stories of Abraham Lincoln. What I recall now, as I remember Lincoln, is also the extraordinary gift—and wisdom—of my teacher, Mrs. Starritt
Mrs. Starritt had announced a class project in the spring of fifth grade. We would be creating a puppet show about American history for our parents. Each of us would have a role, beginning with the Pilgrims and up to the current time. As she named different historical figures to be portrayed, classmates raised their hands and called out “me, me!” to be chosen. I waited until she came to the role of Abraham Lincoln. Then I raised my hand in hopes of being selected, the only girl to do so, along some of the boys. My teacher was, I realized much later, attuned to the passions and aspirations of her students, but at that moment, I nervously sat waiting, my heart beating, and hoping against hope I’d get to “be” Lincoln in the puppet show. Then I heard her say, “Sharon, you have the part for President Lincoln.”
What I realize now, in hindsight, was how Mrs. Starritt understood how important Lincoln was to me and, instead of assigning the role to a boy, she gave it to me, a girl. I was to have the honor of playing the part of the president I revered. And, for all of us, our roles involved much more than recitation. We were to make a marionette for our characters. I remember how carefully I molded my Lincoln puppet’s face, painting in his beard and dark hair, how I filled the body with cotton and assembled it, and how meticulously sewed his dark suit by hand. It was a labor of reverence, and when the time came in the history show for Lincoln to appear, I controlled his movements from above the little stage and recited the Gettysburg address with as much fervor and authority as I could muster. Somewhere, in my fifth-grade dreams, I wanted to make Mr. Lincoln proud.
To this day, Lincoln remains one of the heroes in my life, but in my mind, he stands next to Mrs. Starritt, because I learned, even as a young girl, it was an important moment: I had been chosen to play the part of Abraham Lincoln over the boys. I had a voice. I was an equal.
Remembering the Gettysburg address and that fifth grade moment, I began to think of others who’d made a lasting difference in my life, teaching me life lessons, inspiring me to try harder, have confidence and show kindness to others. I jotted their names down on a page in my journal, remembering each and noting why each person was important.
Dr. Campagna, a neurosurgeon who saved my life when I was a teenager, came immediately to mind. While I have been told repeatedly by other surgeons that Dr. C.’s surgical handiwork on my skull was “a work of art,” what I remember most was his compassion, how he listened to what I had to say with the same attention he gave to my parents. Then, for the days I was recovering from my surgery and still in the hospital, he encouraged me, head turbaned and my eyes ringed with blue and purple from the surgery, to visit other of his patients in the hospital. “Go visit Mrs. — she could use some company…”
At his suggestion, I timidly called on and ended up spending time with a young mother whose two-year-old was dying from a brain tumor, sat by the bedside of an eighteen-year-old boy seriously wounded in a car crash, and visited an elderly woman who was recovering from surgery after having a steel plate inserted in her skull (as I would several months later). Whether intended or not, Dr. C. was not only helping me heal emotionally and physically, but teaching me about compassion. Despite the seriousness of my surgery, I realized that there were many people experiencing far greater trauma than I had. As his grateful patient, I continued, through adulthood and the many places I lived, to write Dr. C. occasionally until his death a few years ago. He always responded with a note of gratitude. It’s little wonder to me that he saved so many lives.
Every culture has its heroes, but the people who’ve made a difference in my life are not well-known, stars or honored frequently for their acts of valor or kindness. They made not even be aware of the impact they have had on others’ lives. Rather, these are the ordinary, everyday heroes, acting with compassion, insight, and generosity without expectation for gain. These are people whose warmth, compassion and unique gifts are given freely and generously and whose warmth, compassion and unique gifts are freely and generously given.
For me, the important and lasting impact on my life is about these everyday heroes, ordinary people with with extraordinary qualities, like my fifth-grade teacher and my surgeon, and many others over the years. They are people whose generosity, wisdom and understanding shaped me in particular ways, and their impact on me has been a lasting gift. Triggered by an anniversary date of a famous speech on Keillor’s site, I discovered a good exercise for me in recaling the people who had such an impact and made a difference, in my life. “I’m a lucky woman,” I remarked to my husband over dinner as I told him all that Keillor’s post had triggered in my memory. “I’ve had such remarkable people and experiences in my life.”
Now, I wish I had realized sooner, in some situations, just how important their presence in my life became—but that’s the wisdom of hindsight… Writing about them is, I suppose, one way to articulate and show gratitude for who they were, and who they were to me.
- Write about someone who has been a role model or “everyday hero” for you. In what way have they been important to you? Describe the situation, how you came to know the person, and what you learned from them.
- As an alternate idea, write about the experience of being a positive role model for a younger person. What was the situation that began the relationship? What impact did you hope to have/or had with this younger person? Were you challenged by them? What did you learn from being a role model?