- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 8, 2002

Hero: An illustrious warrior. One that shows great courage. A man admired for his achievements and noble qualities. An object of extreme admiration and devotion. (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary)

Amanda Goddard, 14, is talking about last September's terrorist attacks on the United States, and she's thinking about heroes.

Heroes are a lot more important than people might realize, says Amanda, a member of the color guard at Park View High School in Sterling, Va.

"If people don't work hard to save other people, who knows what would happen?" she asks. "If people put other people before themselves, this world would probably be a better place. Those firefighters and [passengers on] Flight 93 lost their lives trying to help other people and trying to stop the terrorists. I'm really thankful that they gave their lives for us."

The events of September 11 have prompted most Americans, including the youngest, to acknowledge those among us who would dedicate themselves to the well-being of others. However, surveys and anecdotal evidence suggest that children's choices of personal role models remain unchanged in the wake of the attacks.

Many people, though, accept a broader definition of the word "hero" and seem at least for today to hold a greater appreciation for regular people who demonstrate strength and courage. These everyday heroes include emergency and law-enforcement personnel; the passengers on the ill-fated United Airlines Flight 93; members of the intelligence community, working silently behind the scenes; and military personnel participating in Operation Enduring Freedom.

"I can tell you that on Sept. 10, we needed to define what a hero is. On Sept. 12, every child in this country understood what the word 'hero' means," says Rachel Oestreicher Bernheim, chairman of the Raoul Wallenberg Committee of the United States. The Wallenberg Committee is a nonprofit organization created in 1981 to perpetuate humanitarian ideals in the name of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swede who is credited with saving 100,000 people from death during the Holocaust.

"Our children are desperate for real flesh-and-blood stories," Ms. Bernheim says. "They need to have role models that will give them an inner strength and something to hold on to in times of emergencies."

Who are our heroes?

Most children can hold on to a family member. Like many children, Amanda saves her highest admiration for a parent. Her hero is her mother, Kathy Goddard.

"She's a single parent, and I really look up to her because of how she takes care of all of us, and she puts us before herself," Amanda says. "After [September 11], she just kept going to work and just made everything feel safe. That's why she's my hero."

Julie Riffe of Woodstock, Va., puts a parent on a pedestal as well.

"My hero is my daddy," says Julie, 16. "He's everything I ever wanted out of someone. I always said I won't get married till I meet someone like my dad."

A hero is someone who can stay true to himself or herself and make a difference, explains Julie, a 4.0 student who runs varsity track at Central High School in Woodstock, Va.

"Some people might say, 'My hero is [singer] Britney Spears.' I say, 'Why Britney? What has she done?' Or … Tom Cruise. I'm like, 'Why?' 'Because he's a really good actor.' 'But is he doing anything that you can see is making a difference?' All those people who died [in the attacks] would be considered heroes in every sense. .. They died for our freedom. They're amazing people," she says.

Pre-September 11, the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans Inc. got a glimpse of the attitudes and opinions of more than 1,000 American high school students via its 2001 State of Our Nation's Youth survey. One question posed by the polling consultant firm Peter D. Hart Research asked the teenage respondents to rank people they perceived as "heroes and role models."

Forty-six percent put "family member" in the top spot, followed by "friend of the family" at 16 percent, says Allan Rivlin, a senior vice president at Hart Research. Twelve percent chose "entertainer, artist or writer," 7 percent chose "teacher/educator," 7 percent voted for "sports figure," 6 percent indicated "religious leader," 2 percent selected "political leader," 3 percent said "business leader," and 1 percent said they were not sure.

In May, the Alger Association conducted its 2002 survey. The results revealed no relevant statistical change in role models.

"There's no doubt the whole nation was reminded in a dramatic way of how heroic our public-safety officers are [by the events of September 11]," Mr. Rivlin says, "but as great as people feel about [them] … it's still Mommy, Daddy, Uncle Joe. That's really who young people are looking up to."

Mr. Rivlin could be talking about 11-year-old Jack Wilson of Arlington. The sixth-grader names his parents, Lynn and Ed Wilson, as his heroes because "they help me get through this sort of stuff daily stuff and once-in-a-lifetime stuff, like the effects of 9/11."

The budding artist says he also admires several people outside of his family.

"I guess I like some cartoonists, like Jim Davis and Chuck Jones," Jack says. "Jim Davis draws Garfield, and Chuck Jones was the director for the majority of Bugs Bunny cartoons. They're sort of heroes to me, but not really. I admire them."

Jack's definition of "hero" has remained steady since September 11. A hero, he explains, is "a person who protects me and the people around me and doesn't just sit around; someone who takes action and is a good person and helps out the community."

"My feelings have not changed," he says. "The police department, the fire department and the armed forces … I don't really think of them as, 'Oh, yeah, they're the heroes.' I think of them as out there helping us and making sure nothing too horrible happens. They're the people who are protecting me, and, therefore, I acknowledge them as heroes."

Adam Seaman, 16, of Vienna, says his perceptions of heroes haven't changed since September 11, either.

"My feelings have always been the same firefighters and police officers are all trying to help the world and their country. I think that firefighters, even if they got a better job with more money, would probably stick with the firefighting job because they want to save lives."

His hero is his best friend, Ashley, he says.

"We've been through so much together, and she's always been there for me no matter what. She's actually part of our family now, basically," Adam says.

Add his parents, Susan and Brian Seaman, to the list.

"They've always been there for me when I needed something," the 11th-grader says. "My mom has always been there for me, even at 2 in the morning, if I needed to talk about something. I'm thankful for all my heroes."

Entertainers, especially artists and musicians, are very important, Adam says, "but most of the only thing I listen to is country, because it actually means something. Toby Keith he sings 'Angry American' he tells everyone to be proud to be an American. And comedians are very important because without laughter, there's really nothing."

His little sister, Lauren, 10, isn't as sure.

"I don't know who my heroes are. Can it be a friend my age?" she wonders. "My hero would probably be a girl named Mary, my best friend in the whole world. She's brave and honest and stuff. And I would say my parents are my heroes. My other hero would be my brother. He always tries to help me, even though he can be mean sometimes."

Rediscovering our heroes

Before the terrorist attacks, Americans took for granted their law enforcement and rescue personnel and volunteers, says Ms. Bernheim of the Wallenberg Committee.

"[Public-safety workers] were just part of the landscape," she says. "Some of it may have been a holdover from feelings from the '60s when there was an anti-establishment movement in this country and we looked at the world through different eyes. By the time we got to the '80s, we were living in a culture where fame, greed, violence and celebrity were all there as some of the defining terms. It wasn't just children, but their parents didn't understand the term 'hero,' either."

If the retail market is an accurate indicator, Americans are cluing in.

The Fire Department of New York recently brokered an agreement with a supplier to market the FDNY logo on dozens of products. Fisher-Price's Rescue Heroes action figures $8 toys depicting people in the helping professions enjoyed a double-digit increase in sales after September 11, spokeswoman Laurie Oravec says. The company will offer five new figures FDNY heroes this month.

"Rescue Heroes struck a chord with parents right from the beginning because of the positive role models they provide," Ms. Oravec says. "Following September 11, the whole world was cognizant of something we already knew, which was that the real heroes are the everyday heroes that help others."

In fact, heroes today can be as close as the nearest neighbor, a point Ann Fishman underscores in a discussion about generational differences in reactions to the terrorist attacks.

"9/11 introduced Americans to its newest heroes Gen-Xers [ages 21 to 41]," says Ms. Fishman, president of Generational-Targeted Marketing Corp. and an adjunct associate professor at New York University's Marketing and Management Institute.

"Their childhood was a stew of divorce, latchkey lives, street violence and growing up in a world where sex can kill you," she says. "Instead of being demoralized, Xers have galvanized for the tough times ahead. They were in great numbers the police, firemen and volunteers that helped, the passengers who led the assault against the hijackers in Pennsylvania. That makes them perfect heroes for this strange war we're in."

She continues: "Citizens today get involved they raise the bar that everyone can be a hero. … Since 9/11, children have wonderful role models. It's talked about. They're ripe to have heroes. History and current events fit together like a hand in a glove."

The Wallenberg Committee brings the concept of heroes to children with "A Study of Heroes," an interdisciplinary curriculum being used in kindergarten through 12th-grade classrooms in public, private and independent schools around the country.

The message of the program, says the committee's Ms. Bernheim, is that "as long as someone still has breath in them, they have the potential to make a positive message.

"We don't define the term 'hero,'" she says. "We let children wrestle with this and let them come up with their own definitions."

The committee has chosen a group of character traits that members believe contribute to heroism and has selected 22 men and women, including Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and Cesar Chavez, on whom to focus. The group is working on a new educational unit called "The Heroes of 9/11."

"These are the everyday heroes, the people who made a difference in our lives on a day-to-day basis," Ms. Bernheim says. "This would include police, fire, [emergency medical service] workers, teachers, volunteers, men and women just like us. We think people on the front lines today are heroes, too; there's no question about that."

Ask Angela Aloi to name her heroes, and the 12-year-old answers without hesitation: "My heroes today are my parents and the firemen and the police officers the people who helped out during the 9/11 day. They put their lives on the line to help others."

Angela, a straight-A student and athlete from Burtonsville, defines "hero" as "someone who helps other people and doesn't expect anything in return."

Entertainers and singers, she says, can have good messages, but she's loath to call such people heroes.

Not so Joe Goddard, 16. The Sterling resident and brother of Amanda says Insane Clown Posse, a "rockish-rappish" duo, were heroic to him before September 11.

"I just can relate to their music and stuff like that," he says. "What they're saying … the message they're putting out."

The situation didn't change much herowise after September 11.

"It's still Insane Clown Posse," Joe says, "but in some ways [September 11] has changed me. I'm seeing the world in a different way than I thought it was. It's not all sugar and candy and stuff like that. People have real problems, and they take it out on other people to deal with it."

Joe says his perception of heroes has changed a little bit since September 11.

"I appreciate more what people have done for others. They've tried to save others instead of themselves. They gave me more inspiration to write more lyrics lyrics to help me out. They've just inspired me to write, really."

Looking forward

On a sweltering day late last spring, Regent University's Benson P. Fraser stationed himself at the makeshift memorial outside of Shanksville, Pa., near the site at which hijacked Flight 93 plunged into the earth. Mr. Fraser, a professor in the School of Communication and the Arts, and his colleague, William J. Brown, are studying the influence of September 11 on the community of Shanksville.

Mr. Fraser and Mr. Brown also study celebrities, heroes and role models.

In Shanksville, they united the two elements, passing out typed surveys to hushed visitors and collecting the answers.

A sample survey question: "Think back before 9/11 about those who you considered to be an important hero to you." The list of 15 options included athletes, writers, royalty, actors, family members and firefighters. Another item posed an identical question but asked the respondent for his or her perception post-September 11.

"Did [September 11] change people's perceptions of who they looked at as heroes?" Mr. Brown asks rhetorically. "We haven't analyzed the data yet, but our feeling is it has. We can see some changes as we look through what people are writing on these questionnaires. My hunch is that before 9/11, we went for many years of de-emphasizing the importance of local heroes in our lives family members and police and fire and paramedics and the military and replaced them with JFK Jr. and Dale Earnhardt and Elvis and Michael Jordan, athletes and TV and film stars. I think 9/11 in a way refocused people back to what's important."

Maybe for now, but not forever, says Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists.

"I think the whole issue of hero worship is situational," Mr. Feinberg says. "Whatever was prominent in yesterday's news might be ho-hum next week because kids are so impacted by a variety of other stimuli the media, their own wants and preferences I don't know that these issues have a long-lasting effect on many children."

He continues: "I think the idolizing of heroes is such an ephemeral situation. It changes in a heartbeat. Do I think [cultural icons] have been replaced by the firemen, police and soldiers? No, I do not, because I think that the institutional memory that individuals, groups and communities have is often very short-lived."

Mr. Feinberg wonders why America had to suffer a crisis to engage them in appreciating those who deserve it.

"How can we get kids to turn to real heroes?" he asks. "If we attached the same level of frequency and intensity to publicizing police and fire and other public servants that we do to the rock and movie stars but what's the end product? If you look at the profit motive, does endorsing and selling the value of these police and fire[fighters] have a market value as much as selling Britney or Bruce or 'N Sync?

"I think it's a question of marketing and a question of attaching value over a longer period of time to more substantial members of our society, but I don't necessarily see that happening."

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