17 January 2011

On Heroes

I am not a person given to hero worship. This is not to say that I don’t have role models or don’t deeply respect the accomplishments of men and women of good character. On a day dedicated to honoring the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., I join all Americans as we stand in awe of the leadership and courage he demonstrated. He is a national Hero.

I must confess, though, that I have never thought of anyone as my personal Hero. Put simply, I have been holding out for someone who would affect something singularly amazing in my life – something beyond being kind and doing the right thing. I will never forget the people who have been my inspiration to be a better friend, to be a good father and husband, and to pursue education. But, taking on a Hero, per se, has never come naturally to me. It is just my hang up.

I met Tora in my first semester of graduate school but we didn’t become friends until a few years later when we were working in the same office. It was easy to consider her a friend. We share similar interests, are annoyed by the same people, have compatible senses of humor, and are both parents of small children. So, after several weeks of chatting over the noise of the photocopier, we set up a play date. In theory, it was a chance to bring our kids together. But the kids didn’t care. It was really a chance for me and my wife to meet Tora and her husband, Raj, outside of work and, hopefully, become friends with other parents.

We were smitten with Raj, Tora, and their daughter. And they have become some of our most valued friends. Raj’s passion for social justice and environmental stewardship remind us that good people still care about important things. Tora has been a source of counsel in my moments of grad school doubt and a voice of motherly solidarity for my wife. And their daughter never fails to make us smile.

Education, public policy, and healthcare are common topics when we spend time with Tora and Raj. Each of us cares about these issues as citizen-parents but, for Tora and Raj, the issues are both important and personal. Their daughter has Down Syndrome.

The diagnosis was a surprise that came in the hours after Tora gave birth. Since then, their family has made adjustments, navigated hundreds of consultations and therapy sessions, and become involved in state and local organizations like Imagine a Child’s Capacity: Birth-to-Three, the Madison Area Down Syndrome Society, and Special Olympics Wisconsin. Raj and Tora will occasionally complain about the frustrations of working with their health insurance or the lack of insight among some of the people they encounter. But they never bemoan the fact that life has handed them these circumstances. They openly acknowledge the emotional stress and other challenges they experience, but they are the first to say that parents everywhere have known difficulty. They carry on with grace, perspective, and a sense of humor.

I come from a large family of educators, including a mother and sister who work with special-needs children. I have always considered myself sensitive to issues of special needs and felt that my connection to special education gave me a certain level of enlightened credibility. And yet, when Tora first mentioned – more than a year ago – that her daughter has Down Syndrome, the first word out of my mouth was, “Oh.”

Despite every good intention and every thoughtful instinct I had, there was an awkward, high-pitched tone to what I said. Ooh. I heard my own voice but I could not believe it. In that instant, I shocked myself with a small but telling display of… I still do not know what to call it. I knew that I was not the person who would ever treat or even think about someone with unique needs as being different. I didn’t mean it the way it came out. But there it was.

In that brief moment, I heard something I never expected from myself. Did Tora hear it too? She must have. It was small and quiet but it was there. How could she miss it? How many times had she heard it before?

If Tora heard what I heard, she never said a word, never gave any indication of offense, and certainly did not let it stand in the way of a developing friendship.

Whether or not Tora heard what I heard, it was a surprising, troubling moment for me. What did it say about me as a person, as someone dedicated to education? I wasn’t sure and I could not escape the question itself. Even if I could undo that slip and remove any pain it may have caused, I would still have that nagging feeling that I might be an icky little hypocrite.

Time went on, our families’ friendship grew, and my initial blunder faded to the back of my mind. It was no longer a fresh memory, but it would occasionally come to mind accompanied by a sharp pang of private shame.

A few weeks ago, Raj and Tora brought their daughter over for a play date and pizza dinner. We ate. We talked. We banged on upturned buckets. It was great. And, after our friends left with their toddler bundled tightly against the winter cold, I realized something. The dark-and-twisty personal failing I feared may, in fact, have been real. But it was entirely mutable.

For me, this realization was an undeniable, remarkable moment of personal growth and renewed faith in the potential of the human heart and mind.

Growth is a common theme in education. John Dewey – a giant of American philosophy and educational theory – famously outlined, in his 1938 Experience and Education, an influential view of how growth, learning, and experience are interrelated and interdependent. The idea is rather simple. Saying or believing something is far less meaningful and enduring than experiencing it and understanding its place in and its influence on your life. In fact, knowledge and ideas – divorced from experience –risk becoming useless drudgery. The challenge is having the opportunity and space necessary to undergo that sort of meaningful, growth-inducing experience.

A person needs a chance to sit down, talk with a pair of toddlers, and discover that he speaks to each them with the same kind of love and sees them as equally amazing little people. A person needs time to realize that a long-held idea is only beginning, that an idea is a thing, that experience is real, and that it is not only possible but easy and natural to make that idea part of who you are.

I needed a chance. I needed time. I needed an opportunity to be something, someone more than the guy who could talk the talk.

There are men and women like Dr. King who help to create an opportunity for an entire nation to face its values, to practice those values, and to grow. But there are other people who, without necessarily setting out to do so, provide the opportunity for one person, a friend, to do the same thing. They are the people who provide an opportunity for someone else to become better.

Somewhere between a conversational blunder, unsettling introspection, and a family pizza night, I learned something about myself. It may have happened eventually, at another time and in another way, but it didn’t. It happened because of Tora, Raj, and their family.

Their impact on my life is not a matter of mere friendship. Nor are they remarkable because they make it through life with a daughter who has particular needs. I do not wish to oversimplify anything. Who they are and why I valuable their friendship encapsulate much more than Down Syndrome or simply being good people. Nevertheless, I cannot ignore the unique experience they have provided and the remarkable impact that came from the way they give their friendship and share their family.

Today is a day when a grateful nation reflects on the life of a man who helped create an opportunity for society to confront incomplete ideals and the need for growth. Yet, in a moment of more personal reflection, I am grateful for the sort of people who give me a chance to experience something profound, to learn about myself, and to grow. As a student of educational philosophy, I am inspired. As a parent and a friend, I am moved. As an individual, I am humbled.

I guess I do have personal Heroes.

Image: Martin Luther King Press Conference from the Library of Congress collection


  1. Every "disability" is balanced with a talent. I think it's ok to feel bad about the challenges people face living an a society that largely hasn't learned to understand that yet. Our school system wants everyone to be the same, rather than embracing our gifts. But what a gift to be able to help us evolve.

  2. Very true.... Thanks for reading for for the thoughtful comment. -ed