What is a hero?
According to the late Christopher Reeve, “A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” That’s a good definition. However, isn’t “hero” is used a little loosely in our society when people like LeBron James, Michael Phelps, or Peyton Manning are called heroes. Exceptional athletes, yes. Heroes? I think not.
However, my favorite quote about heroes does come from an athlete:
“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”
This is from tennis great Arthur Ashe, a three-time Grand Slam winner. Was Ashe a hero? Undoubtedly, but not solely because of his athletic ability. He was a hero because he broke the racial barrier in tennis. He was a hero because when he contracted AIDS from a transfusion and used it as an opportunity to bring awareness to the disease. Arthur Ashe served others.
Not surprisingly, when you go in search of quotes about heroes, more than a few refer to “he.” While it’s possible to have a hero from another gender, I think humans have a tendency to compare themselves to their own gender. Females of all ages need heroes. We need someone to look up to, to tell us that the impossible is possible, and encourage us to be better people.
I am currently working on a children’s book about female astronauts, so I took special notice when astronaut Sally Ride died on July 23. She was the first American female astronaut in space. As a mission specialist for the shuttle Challenger, she made history on June 18, 1983. Along with the announcement of her death was the previously unknown news that she gay. When people debated why she hadn’t come out earlier, the heroism of Sally Ride was sadly put aside.
Sally Ride broke the gender barrier in the American space program. The fact that it took 20 years after the first women in space (Valentina Tereshkova) was unfortunate as was the fact that other qualified women known as the Mercury 13 were passed over.
But she did it! The fact that an astronaut is female rarely makes news anymore because there are many. This is what breaking down barriers does, makes the extraordinary ordinary.
After a couple of flights in space, Sally served on a commission investigating the later Challenger tragedy and became the first director of NASA’s Office of Exploration. Like Arthur Ashe, she served others. After retiring from space, Sally inspired new generations in science education. She showed girls that science was cool.
We all need heroes. Thank you, Sally Ride.