January 04, 2008

Kids and Heroes, in My House and in Pakistan

I had no childhood hero. Athlete and astronaut left me equally unimpressed. When Time Magazine pronounced “Generation X Doesn't Believe in Heroes,” they were pronouncing about me.

But I have one now. Since I first learned about his building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I have increasingly admired Greg Mortenson.

They say the problem with heroes is the falling. You can adore Mel Gibson or Marion Jones, but where does that leave you when they go on a drunken tirade or admit to steroids?

Still, falling is a problem only in cases of hero worship. The risk of glorifying people is that they're people after all. They have faults.

I like to think that if some side of Greg Mortenson disappoints me, I will feel only crestfallen, not crushed.

Heroes also remind us of our failures.

You don't admire the chess-playing of someone who loses to you. To admire someone is to admit to your weakness. Maybe it was just stubborn pride that kept me from having heroes when I was a kid.

Greg Mortenson sold everything he owned and begged in order to build his first school. To this day, he lives in impoverished places and negotiates with dangerous people in order to teach reading to girls half a world away.

I can't think of any reason I shouldn't do the same. Instead I maintain a comfortable job in lovely New England and pride myself on Camille's success at homeschooling.

When I heard my hero was speaking nearby in Vermont, I immediately called my wife and told her I wanted to meet him. What I said next surprised me: “And I want the kids to come, too.” Camille, may God bless her always, bundled them up in spite of her flu and drove them out to meet me.

So I hurried them through bitter cold, at just about their bedtime, to meet my first hero.

Greg Mortenson really knows what it is to cherish education, and I admire him. And I'm in awe of him, and intimidated by him, and inspired by him, and indebted to him. I spoke with him that night in Bellows Falls, but I couldn't look him in the eye. I was too ashamed.

This is why it was so important to me that the children see and hear him.

The event was for adults. In a crowd of hundreds, Nathaniel and Jessica were the only kids. They fidgeted through parts of his slide show and looked to me for explanation when he fielded questions about American foreign policy.

I think I did right to bring them. My hope for Nathaniel and Jessica is that they will turn out better than I have. I want them to have the courage and the yearning to do tangible good in the world. I want their actions to emulate Christ's. I want them to love strangers. I don't want them to be afraid.

Maybe the evening with Greg Mortenson will influence them. Already they are collecting pennies for his schools. We keep some of his promotional photos in the kitchen, and I like to think they are starting to feel a kinship with these utterly foreign children half a world away.

As a child I had no hero; as a parent I do. My hero's achievements point to my failures, and my failures point to my hopes for my children. I want them to be a little more like him—and a little less like me.