It all started with a writing assignment I gave to my sixth grade class. Students were to plan an imaginary dinner party for 12 people, including at least one political leader, an artist, an entertainer, three historical figures no longer living, and, if they wished, a couple of actual friends or relatives. The idea was for the kids to celebrate the people they look up to, people who had made an important contribution to the world – heroes, if you will.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but there were certainly a lot of places set for Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and Princess Diana. Folks like Bill Cosby and Kirsti Alley rubbed shoulders with Picasso and Alexander the Great. At one gathering, Harriet Tubman and Jewel provided before-dinner entertainment. Another student seated her horse between Fredrico Fellini and Nelson Mandela.
What fascinated me was not only the choices the kids made, but the effort it took for them to come up with their lists. By far the most difficult category to fill was that of political leader. Nobody invited then-President Clinton, though Hilary was seated at one table, and even John F. Kennedy made the scene here and there. A surprising number of kids simply couldn’t think of anyone in politics at all, let alone someone they admired.
The section of historical figures also proved challenging. “Don’t you have any heroes from the past?” I asked. “Aren’t there any people you’ve learned about whose contributions you think were really great?” Because we had been studying ancient Greece, there was a flurry of Socrates and Alexanders, but seldom did I sense the child had made a real connection to them. Their reasons seemed bloodless and contrived.
Needless to say, sports and media celebrities were easiest to come by. I know now that Kristi Yamaguci is more admired than Winston Churchill, and I wonder if this has any real significance. Certainly the creation of celebrity by television is a relatively new phenomenon. Was public life a more honored calling when our leaders were not held under the constant scrutiny of the media? And did children always have so little connection to the past?
I began to think about the heroes of my own childhood, and the guests I might have summoned. The Second World War had ended so recently that one could turn around and touch it – – it was in the faces of our fathers, and its heroes were still real. My father had been in a coffee shop when the friendly clatter of plates and conversation was interrupted by a news bulletin about Pearl Harbor, and his world abruptly changed. I heard respect in his voice when he spoke of FDR, and the nation’s grief upon his death, and so I felt this also. I saw the tattooed numbers on the weary arms of a Brooklyn tailor and his wife, and I knew, though they silently worked in their sunlit shop, that terrible things had happened to them. Eleanor Roosevelt still walked in the world, and in her I saw a certain sadness and kindness, but also strength. I visited the United Nations on a field trip with my class. I felt somehow connected to foreign lands and distant deeds.
But we had a family mythology as well. I was told that my ancestors had grown up shouting to be heard above the roar of Mt. Vesuvius. They were artists who painted roses and angels on the ceilings of ancient stucco houses in faraway villages. My father himself had never achieved the education he had yearned for, but survived by dint of his artistry with paint and words. When he told me that he had once refused an offer of a full-paid college education from a mobster, it was his way of saying we must never allow ourselves to be owned, no matter how much we might want the prize. When he was a boy, he had accidentally set a fire in his family’s apartment and destroyed an entire shipment of goods that my grandfather had planned to sell. My grandfather returned home and, seeing his son’s terror, gave him a dollar bill and a hug of forgiveness. “You matter more than these things,” said my grandfather, and so he taught us how to love.
I knew, too, that my mother, at 9, had flung her glasses into the gutter when the kids at school called her “four-eyes.” Her horrified parents walked the chilly streets with her in the moonlight until the glasses were found. As a young woman, she worked in the office of Colman Marcus in Manhattan and earned enough money to put a telephone in her mother’s house, but they had to hide it whenever the inspector from the home relief office came by. My parents met on Valentine’s Day a week after my father came out of the army. They danced to a song called Bessa Me Mucho and rode the subway back and forth between Brooklyn and Corona, Queens, until my father managed to buy a car. I know these long subway rides. The seats of the train are of woven straw, and the cars smell of late nights and faint perfumes, sleepy, but not dangerous.
When my father began painting houses, he hired a man named Vito Plantamura who worked hard, and was known for his loyalty and honesty. Vito had white hair, blue eyes, and spoke in scratchy Brooklyn tones, a lot like Jimmy Durante. He called my father “Buss.” My brothers and I used to laugh at the vast quantities of food Vito would consume after claiming he was not hungry. “You know me, Buss,” he would say, “I don’t eat.” But then my father told us a story. When Vito was a boy, his mother had put a pot of water on the stove to boil while she waited for his father to come home with a package of spaghetti. The water boiled away, and his father did not come, so she filled it up again, and yet again. At last, the father came to the door, but he had not been paid, and his hands were empty. Vito’s mother simply stood up, silently emptied the pot of water into the sink, and everyone went to bed hungry. That night, Vito tried to convince himself that he didn’t need to eat, and his denial became a lifelong habit. I understood Vito better then, and respected him, and would have counted him among my heroes.
I lived in a world of gypsies and ghosts, where truth, as my father once said, did handsprings with illusion, where stories were served up freely like fruit, and time was not confined by the walls of chronology. I absorbed all of the stories and grew fat with memories from other lives, which somehow became my own. I learned that even yesterday’s hunger and passion, tragedy and love, could spill over into my heart, and I might recognize them as mine. I felt myself to be a part of history, danced freely through the cosmos, and sensed that each life that touched me was part of a story greater than either of us knew. I learned many lessons, met many heroes, and amassed a body of myth that I draw upon still.
I asked the sixth grade students to reflect recently on the interviews they had done with local old-timers for an oral history project. “It made history come alive,” said one boy. “I think we’ll remember what they said for a very long time,” said another.
Once child expressed it this way: “They have marvelous pictures they can let you imagine.”
“It was almost like sitting at a campfire,” reflected another, “and hearing beautiful tales.”
Such poetry nourishes the soul and the psyche. Where stories are not shared, the culture dies. I fear for a world whose children name most readily as heroes the hollow images of television or the lifeless figureheads of a social studies book. I am sad that so few shining leaders come to mind, that 12 seats seem so hard to fill from all of time, including now.
And I think the remedy begins with the telling of tales.
Does it sound trite? Then why is it so absent? We must revive the art of storytelling, make time to share our memories, teach our children to communicate with the elders of our disoriented tribe, and gather what wisdom we can. We must look up in order to transcend. Heroes walk among us, real as dirt, dazzling as gods.
Cynthia Carbone Ward