The Hero Has a Thousand Faces – Courage and Connections

Children’s literature is full of heroes. And for good reason: young children live in the imaginative world of who they will become, taking example from the strongest model at hand. But what role does the hero play for adult learners, especially those who are challenged by immigration, poverty or incarceration? Do the heroic subjects of children’s literature convey meaningful messages for these readers, as well?

At a recent ESOL class in Nashua, students wrote their reflections on children’s books they had just read as a part of a NHHC Connections discussion series. One of the books, “The Great Kapok Tree: a Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest,” by Lynn Cherry struck a chord with student Ezequiel Tavera. He had this to say about the book’s portrayal of Chico Mendes, the martyred environmentalist of the Amazon: “Chico Mendes teaches us that we must learn to live with wildlife because we live on a planet earth as rented for a while and it must be looked after. If we pollute our habitat, we damage ourselves and Nature. (We) must take care and maintain our land.” In discussion, the class agreed, Chico Mendes was a hero. He stood up for what he believed was right for everyone and was an example for us all.

The question of heroism came up at a Connections book series at the Concord State Prison for Men, where incarcerated fathers share books with their children. The men compared a book about the English explorer Ernest Shackleton, (Trapped by the Ice: Shackleton’s Amazing Antarctic Adventure, by Michael McCurdy,) with the novel, Jakeman, by Barbara Ellis. In this discussion, Shackleton came up short. The men all agreed that anyone who chose to put themselves and others into the kind of danger arctic exploration entailed in 1914, even if he did save them all later, cannot be called a hero. The group had an entirely different opinion of the characters in Jakeman. In this story, children board a bus for the long trip to visit their incarcerated mothers on Mother’s Day. Notes from this discussion:

“The kids as a group are the heroes of this novel. It’s how they work together to take care of each other that’s heroic.

“In a bad situation, small acts of kindness can be heroic.”

“Persistence is a form of courage.”

Connections participants in other programs point out the quality of persistence as a true mark of heroism in one of the program’s favorite historical personalities, Susan B Anthony. Five classes have read the book, Heart on Fire, Susan B. Anthony Votes for President by Ann Malaspina in the past year, and over fifty students attended Sally Matson’s living history presentation of Anthony in March. Of Anthony, Connections participants say:

“She worked for voting rights for everybody, not just women.”

“She lived her life for only one ideal.”

“She never gave up hope, even though she knew that she would not ever be able to vote legally.”

“She got stronger when they tried to keep her down.”

The same could be said for Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who continues to stand up for the rights of all girls to receive an education, in spite of being critically wounded by the Taliban for her beliefs. Malala’s story is inspiring new immigrants in Connections programs through the children’s book: Malala Yousafzai, Warrior with Words.

Says facilitator, Maria Cristina Rojas, “Malala’s cause, (the right to equal education,) enabled her to receive the Nobel Prize. Her story inspired love for people, especially for those who faced the same problems as her.  Malala’s experience was incredibly inspirational, especially for those willing to learn and grow from others. On the last day each one of them wrote a sign “I am Malala” and they took a picture of this vibrant moment.  It was an unprecedented response from the students.”

Why do these children’s books about heroes resonate with adult learners? The simple narratives, accessible vocabulary and vibrant illustrations found in quality children’s literature help adult students get quickly to the meaning of a story. And children’s books do not shy away from offering lessons about ethical behavior, providing good platforms for discussion. As for heroes: while children may imagine their future heroic deeds, many adult learners have already quietly lived them. Those who have endured hardship while escaping tyranny, those who keep learning despite the odds that poverty has stacked against them, those who are finding a way to become the best parent possible, transcending their past mistakes can relate to the persistence it takes to remake one’s life. While heroes’ stories may offer a child inspiration for the future, they offer an adult confirmation of a path already taken.