The Haines House is a local historical landmark that was, years and years and years ago, a stop on the Underground Railroad. When you take a tour there, they show you the restored parlor, the kitchen, the herb garden, the bedroom, and the attic where escaped slaves would hide before continuing their journey. The last time I was there, I was particularly impacted by a small artifact — a handmade topsy-turvy doll. Though the topsy-turvy doll’s original meaning and purpose is uncertain, according to our docent, the folks who lived at the Haines House used theirs as a signal. When a child played outside with the white side of the doll showing, it wasn’t safe to move. But when it was, the child would play with the black side showing, so that local allies would know their help and care was needed.
My city is not perfect; our current situations are shaped by institutionalized inequality despite our historical high ideals. But still I take inspiration from the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by fugitive slaves in the 19th century to escape to free states and Canada. This network was made up of former slaves, abolitionists, and allies, who all knew on some level that owning other people was wrong and were willing to do something about it. When we look back, and realize someone we otherwise admire espoused hateful beliefs, we often excuse it with a wave of the hand, remarking, “They were a product of their times.” To me, the Underground Railroad disproves that notion. You can live at a time when horrible things are acceptable at a societal and legal level, and still reject them morally, and act on your convictions.
We have our heroes of American history: the presidents, the pioneers, the inventors, the warriors. Many of their names will trip off our tongues readily. But the Underground Railroad reminds us that heroism is not a competitive enterprise: you don’t have to shine the brightest, you don’t have to be the first. You don’t have to change the whole world to change one person’s world for the better. Heroes are often made in the crucible of crises, but just as often heroism is an incremental, daily commitment to do what is right. This is who I aspire to be in my classroom and community day after day after day. Even children can be this type of hero to one another. Anyone could be, so long as your ambition is truly to make life easier or better for others, not to go down in history.
So, even though it’s only December 17th, I’m committing to my 2017 New Year’s Resolution now. I want to commit to doing heroic things in my daily life. Things that are small, and would be easier not to do, but have a measurable and net-positive impact on somebody else. Things like showing compassion to a challenging student. Things like picking up the phone and calling my representative — and, even when the topic is unpleasant, beginning and ending my message with sincere, positive greetings. (“Have a nice week” as opposed to “I hope you step on a Lego while barefoot.”) Things like tweeting a personal, supportive message at someone who deserves to see one.
Doing small, challenging things does not necessarily make me the hero I want to be, because I am the sum of all my actions and more. But maybe by doing heroic things, I may become the hero I need to see in my own reflection.