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"Open your notebooks and write about your hero, you have twenty minutes."
My eyes stared at the blank page before me then danced lazily around the class of fourth graders before I sighed and dropped my pencil. I didn't have a hero. I asked my teacher what I should do about that. She raised her eyebrows and bit out ideas: mom, dad, family member, movie star, character in a book. When she walked away I rolled my eyes "I don't have a hero" means simply "I don't have a hero." I sighed and falsified my reality, scribbling about some movie character.
Over the next six years I faked my way through the question or simply shrugged and looked away. Who is your hero? "Grand question!" I wanted to say, "But I haven't the foggiest." Even as I donned the title of high schooler the word hero meant people in funny outfits, like men in tights and underwear on the wrong side of their lycra with a flowing red cape.
I had so many people I looked up to that others would consider heroes but I pictured the red cape and knew none of them, no matter how much they meant to me, earned the title.
Settling myself into my last class on the first day of my sophomore year I didn't expect my hero, of all people, to be a teacher. In fact the H word had evaded me for quite sometime and I wasn't prepared to run into it again, this time succeeding in trapping me in its clutches.
He passed out note cards and had us answer a few questions about ourselves, one being what the nerdiest thing we did over the summer was. I heaved the great sigh of an egotistical teenager and prepared to perform the hokie task he asked of us. When we finished he instructed us to share with a neighbor then each person had to tell about their partner from memory.
Inwardly I smirked, this guy had to be kidding right? But I supposed it was better than sitting around listening to teachers ramble about the rubric for ninety minutes, which I had already done three times that day. So I went along with it, watching the teacher as he paid rapt attention to each student as they spoke. I stumbled over my words when that gaze met mine.
I had never felt like I was being listened to so intently before and the pure intensity of his attention startled me. I could already tell his mind was everywhere at once but "full attention" hadn't quite meant something until now. I was talking about a trivial thing that barely scratched the surface of my friend's life and I was utterly and completely heard.
My brain ground to a halt as I realized this, my mom is often distracted when I talk to her and I have to repeat things multiple times, and my friends are always somewhere else: drama, the new crush, the evil teacher. I had eventually learned to just hold my tongue, but for a moment there it seemed as if I was heard. I began to grin.
Then the teacher answered his own questions, introducing himself as Mr. Mack, a fan of soccer and an total nerd. My smile would remain a fixed feature in his class.
Having Mack for a teacher was possibly the best thing that every happened to me. I had loved biology before but Mack taught with such passion and enthusiasm for his subject that I couldn't help but get wrapped into it further, determining then and there that no matter what happened, biology would be a part of my life. I finally had an intellectual passion, something (as a brainy person) I expected to have much sooner. He taught with such enthusiasm that after so many words he would lick his bottom lip like he was about to dive into the first taste of the delicious territory of an unknown dessert. And I realized that each sentence he spoke WAS like the first taste of a dessert, a brand new adventure, as if he had never heard or said, those same words before. As if the words he spoke shocked him and their sudden appearance on his lips tasted wickedly sweet like the exaggerations of an enthused storyteller’s tale of a close encounter with a ferocious lion. THAT was his enthusiasm with teaching.
Mack not only taught with enthusiasm he taught with expectations, raising the bar high above what any of us expected for ourselves. He talked with us and engaged us instead of talking AT us. He carefully planted information in our minds discreetly nurturing it until suddenly we realized we housed a massive forest of ideas in our heads. He was funny, brilliant and certain, firmly planted in his determination to offer us the world he loved. And he pushed us, made us think instead of programming us like robots, as so many teachers did.
We had been talking about GMOs one day and the meddling of man within nature. I had always, always opposed man irreversibly changing the world Mother Nature had provided for us and had found myself to be so planted in my belief that I had been deaf and blind to the other side’s arguments and eventually even the ones my own side was supposed to be making. Mack asked us if there was a line to how far we could meddle. A girl said we were given intelligent, big brains to meddle so why not do so until hell broke loose. I scoffed and interjected.
“With such a brain comes the resp-“ I swallowed the word, there were those eyes of full attention again. I continued. “The responsibility to know our limits and when to stop.”
He nodded in response and I glowed with the approval. He began asking where should we stop, should we give the animals we perform scientific research on a say, should we give this or that a say? And he worked down the line until he asked if we should give the mindless such as worms a say? I had said yes to all of the above, trapped in my beliefs from when I was a little girl, he was looking at me again, I was just about the only one answering. “Should we give the germs a say, knowing we kill them every time we wash our hands?” He asked, the final piece of the inquisition. I started to say yes again before it dawned on me what he asked, “Well,” I said trying to explain myself then realized I was digging my own grave. “I guess not.” I breathed, not sure what just happened.
“I’m not trying to change what you believe,” he said to the class in general as a blush crept evilly onto my face and licked my cheeks pink with its forked tongue. “I’m just trying to make you think.” I understood that suddenly. And I admired him for it.
Soon it became Mack this and Mack that and Mack, Mack, Mack. I couldn’t stop myself from spewing out how COOL he was and what FANTASTIC things we did and class today and guess what he told us! And you’ll NEVER believe what I learned in bio! One night my mom was listening to me go on and on about the man again when she interrupted and said with this knowing smile on her face “He’s kinda your hero isn’t he.”
I opened my mouth to protest then closed it. I barely had to think for a second before “Yeah,” I was saying “Yeah he is!” And a huge grin plastered my face and the next day I joyfully declared to my best friend that Mack was my hero. And for the first time in my life, I had one and it was later, as I walked into his class that day, that I realized that heroes don’t have to wear their underwear on the wrong side of their tights.