Heroism—from Unspeakable Tragedy to Inexplicable Hope

Mr. Iten was my 7th grade English teacher at Hoover Middle School.  He managed to combine the grammar lessons found in the Warriner’s Composition text with humor; he’d create sentences to diagram with backward names to keep us engaged (his own name, Paul Iten, became Luap Neti for example).  He was clearly intelligent but approachable as well—he got “us” as the kids we were, and liked us for all of our 7th gradeness.  He’d read us all kinds of texts.  One was “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” a 1939 short story by James Thurber.  Mr. Mitty led a rather unfulfilled life from what we could tell; while completing pedestrian tasks with a spouse who directed his every move, he’d find his mind wandering to unlived but longed for scenes of heroism and bravery.  The everyday didn’t seem to be where Walter wished to remain.  Mr. Iten read it with feeling from the start:

“WE’RE going through!” The Commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye. “We can’t make it, sir. It’s spoiling for a hurricane, if you ask me.” “I’m not asking you, Lieutenant Berg,” said the Commander. “Throw on the power lights! Rev her up to 8500! We’re going through!” The pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. The Commander stared at the ice forming on the pilot window. He walked over and twisted a row of complicated dials. “Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!” he shouted. “Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!” repeated Lieutenant Berg. “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” shouted the Commander. “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” The crew, bending to their various tasks in the huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane, looked at each other and grinned. “The Old Man’ll get us through,” they said to one another. “The Old Man ain’t afraid…”  

That sound…”ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa,” was the thread that ran through each of the protagonist’s imaginings.  I still recall, thirty years later, how my teacher read it.  Sounded like a machine…an engine…I could picture clear-thinking and decisive movement in the midst of overpowering, almost rhythmic loudness.

Reading that story as a 12 or 13 year old gave the impression of comedy.  It was funny the way Mitty’s wife directed him, and how he lost himself in imaginary events where he was the hero.  It was funny the way he argued about having to get overshoes, but got them anyway.  As a 41 year old though, there’s a little less comedy and a little more empathy in the reading.  I kind of get it.


From my classroom I hear the shots ring out in the hallway.  I crouch low and get to the doorway.  I lift a raised finger to my lips, urging with my eyes for the 22 students hiding in the corner of the room to stay quiet.  Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa…more shots.  I grasp the worn brass door handle—not a knob but a handle. My back pushing against the door, I pull the handle down, and slowly try to pull the door open against my own weight to quiet any noise.  I’ve forgotten that in this room, I have to move the handle up, not down, and I make the correct motion and apply the same effort.  Gradually I pull myself away from the door, releasing pressure on it, take one forward step and another to the left, still low to the ground.  I’m in the hall.  Gunfire masks the noise of the door clicking shut and my first steps.  I see the assailant’s back.  The intruder is peering into rooms, frustrated, trying to open doors.  He shoots at the walls, the ceiling.  Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa…with every shot I edge closer, almost sliding along the wall because that seems like the way this should be done…I’m one room away from him.  He stops at a door…same side of the hall as me.  Tries the handle.  No resistance.  He pushes the door open with his right shoulder, which turns his direction to me…our eyes meet.  He points his weapon towards a new target…I lunge at his knees.  We fall…he loses grip of the weapon…the gun slides across the floor…I scramble after it, feeling his hands grasping at me feet …I…retrieve the gun…turn…


My imagination.  My dream-like end to a nightmare.  I’ve got to believe that we all have our Mitty-like moments where we emerge heroically from a threat, where we save the lives of others and ourselves.

There is though, another kind of heroism.

The unspeakable events of December 14, 2012 exist as they exist.  Words cannot explain the loss: nothing can do that.  There is no silver lining, no “take-away” that cushions the blow.  We don’t need the deaths of 26 to remind us of the fragility of life, or the beautiful, buoyant spirit that accompanies most youth and some adults.  But…then again…no death should have to remind us of that.  But it does.  In the memory of those that lived, we have the opportunity to refocus our own efforts to live in a manner that is at once heroic and hopeful.  Reminding ourselves of the names helps to sharpen our thoughts one year later:

Charlotte Bacon, Daniel Bardon, Rachel D’Avino, Olivia Engel, Josephine Gay, Dylan Hockley, Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, Madeleine Hsu, Catherine Hubbard, Chase Kowalski, Jesse Lewis, Anne Marquez-Greene, James Mattioli, Grace McDonnell, Anne Marie Murphy, Emily Parker, Jack Pinto, Noah Pozner, Caroline Previdi, Jessica Rekos, Avielle Richman, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach, Benjamin Wheeler, Allison Wyatt

The articles published as we approach a year since that day remind us as well.  The youngest victims were all of 6 years of age.  Some longed to play…to bounce a ball…to go out for a pass.  Some loved horses.  Some loved reading.  Some loved singing.  Some loved tacos.  There are reasons they are remembered so dearly and with such longing.  They’re remembered because these things about them, these characteristics that made them “them,” were noticed and savored by those they loved and those who loved them.  There was and is, a greatness, a heroism in that.  Hope exists here.  Those parents, those friends, those educators, those coaches, took in all that these kids were…they shared moments with them…they took time with them.  All those details that made up the tear-generating articles and blogs about the fallen existed because these kids (and adults), long before they were victims, were noticed and valued.  That is heroic.  And that is a reason for hope.

To be sure, heroism of the life-saving variety occurred that day in December.  But it also occurred in the days, weeks and years prior.  And this brand of heroism is seen now.  Heroism is found in greeting each day with the spirit of a Jesse, in the classroom moments that forged a bond between a Dylan and a Mrs. Murphy, in the way a Caroline would make a younger student feel safe on the bus.  The heroism of the everyday, where students walking through the school halls know that they are cared for; where moments of disappointment and frustration can yield to understanding and growth.  The heroism of a Mr. Iten, who brought his energy and intelligence to work with him, who never let us feel like he was too busy or above our very middle school type antics.  The heroism of a teacher who works tirelessly with his students days after bidding a final farewell to one of his parents.  The staff member who pleads with administration to help a student whose safety she fears for.  The parent who calls with concern over what their child has shared with them.  The heroism of a connection made every day with every daughter, every son, every student and every colleague…this is where hope lives.

Lincoln again helps us to see clearly.  Speaking about a different group of fallen, he said that “we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…”  While the context is different, the message remains.  The reason the lost at Newtown are mourned so is that they lived their lives with hope.  Those around them heroically decided to live with it as well, to savor the details of their very being.  The lesson of Newtown is that we strive every day to do the same.  To make the heroic decision to live with hope, and see that hope in the lives of our youth and those that guide them.


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