Real Superheroes Wear Sweaters

I wrote a book last year called Rabble Rousers-Agitadores. It tells the story of how ordinary people became extraordinary history-changing heroes. I wrote about Mother Jones and Cesar Chavez. I told the stories of Nelson Mandela and Jose Marti. These are people whose action, inspiration, and willingness to stand up and stand in the way changed the world.

Let me tell you about some other people who change the world every day: amazing rabble rousers in appliqued sweater vests. They drive your child’s school bus. They teach second grade. They are leading the fight for child nutrition and to end childhood hunger. Maybe it’s just hard to see that these folks are heroes because they don’t wear capes.

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Someone once said to me, “the thing about education is it attracts the really nice do-gooder sorts.” I’m always struck by the cliché image of the kindly teacher with the sweet smile and the appliqued sweater vest—as though there is a gentle simplicity to these people and the work they do. There is nothing gentle and nothing simple about superheroes. I always think a cape would be more appropriate attire for our educator heroes.

The number one phobia in the U.S. is fear of public speaking. This is true—Chapman University did a survey on it. I do a bit of public speaking and I get it. It can be scary. But when most people say they are afraid of public speaking, they are thinking about adult-world public speaking where the audience is usually polite and at least minimally respectful. So now imagine that there is a job where public speaking is the daily routine—and I’m not talking about speaking into the austere dark void of polite grownups but instead a well-lit room filled with the world’s harshest critics: 40 first graders with the wiggles. And your job is to teach them math and how to sit still.

We don’t think about that first grade teacher as a brave public speaker or a heroic cape-wearing savior. That first grade teacher may wear an appliqued sweater vest with pumpkins or Christmas trees befitting the holiday (I have one or two), but don’t tell me she’s just a nice, unassuming lady. She’s a superhero. She’s a rabble rouser.

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Too often and in too many places, a student’s zip code dictates the quality of her public school. We have some of the best –equipped, shiniest, most stunning schools in the world. And a few miles down the road, public school buildings are falling down (some literally), textbooks are so old they were in circulation when my mother was in school. Policy makers may have abandoned the students inside these schools, but these students are still learning because of the fearless, amazing, stunning superheroes who work there. They create opportunity where opportunity had been left for dead.

This summer I heard the story of a school custodian who built handrails for a student who couldn’t walk. He did it on his own time with his own materials. He’s not an occupational therapist, he’s a custodian who helped a child learn to walk. In June, I met a school lunch lady—I have a soft spot for school lunch ladies because my own career started in a school cafeteria—who had previously worked in the courthouse cafeteria. She uprooted her career and moved from the courthouse to the school house because she said she wanted to help the kids before they got in trouble. She makes a difference for students every day—and maybe there are just a few more kids on the honor roll and few less on probation.

Every day, in every public school in this country, educators do extraordinarily heroic things. They spend an average of $500 (or more) of their own money to supply their classrooms. Every year. They work night jobs and weekend jobs because in some places school salaries are too low to support their families. They stay up grading papers until the wee hours of the morning and then go to bed with their superhero capes tucked under their pillows.

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These are the real superheroes. These are the rabble rousers and the world-changers.

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