By Peg Ludtke
She was always at least one student’s first pick. My 9th-grade students were required to do a year-long biography study of someone they revered, someone who they felt had done something admirable for the greater good. Harriet Tubman easily fulfilled the requirement and swelled my female student’s minds and hearts with inspiration.
The finale for the project was a speech where my students would dress up and become their hero and tell the story of their life. I will never forget the Harriet Tubman speech where in the middle of it my student dropped to the floor as if she had fainted. I was about to go to the phone to call the nurse’s office when, my student (Harriet Tubman) stood up again and said, “Sorry about that, I had a metal weight thrown at my head by my master, so every now and then I get dizzy and fall down. I get headaches, bad ones too.” Later in life, Harriet suffered from seizures as well.
Throughout the school year, we talked about heroism. We discussed how some heroes faced adversity and still did the right and often harder thing to do. With very little nudging, students would conclude that character and persistence were more important than physical strength. When we read The Odyssey, Odysseus, students decided he was strong and brave, “but he’s a player, Mrs. L” a student would say. Odysseus was forever cheating on his wife and a braggart to boot.
I liked to push my students further and would ask them to rank their list of heroes. Was Abraham Lincoln more heroic than Thomas Jefferson? What led you to decide that? Often Harriet Tubman was the only female historical figure on a student’s list of heroes, but always she got a high rank, if not top billing.
After reaching Philadelphia and her freedom in 1849, a moment she describes as “such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.” she could bask in her freedom and stay safe. Instead, she went back to the South 19 times, freeing over 300 others. Still, she was not done with heroics. During the Civil War, she was scout and spy for the Union army. In her later years still suffering from the debilitating head injury and after being robbed by swindlers promising her gold, she fought for women’s suffrage.
Knowing all this, learning most of it from my inspired students, I suppose is the reason why I am more than frustrated that again, a female, no matter how heroic, is put on hold, asked to wait for her spot of recognition. Women it seems always have to wait; 75 years for the right to vote, 50 years and still counting for the ERA to pass. Until Hillary we waited to have a female from a major party run for President. No wonder despite her winning the popular vote, she did not become our Commander in Chief. After all, she’s female; she just hasn’t put in enough wait time.
At this point, readers may be thinking, O.K she is off on a feminist rant. Yet, with Harriet, I think its more than that. Because of Harriet being put on the waitlist indefinitely, I started thinking about the qualities in heroes we do choose to acknowledge, particularly the ones that show up on our currency. I don’t recall ever seeing Andrew Jackson even making the list of heroes for any of my students.
What heroics was Andrew Jackson responsible for? During the War of 1812, he conquered the British in the Battle of New Orleans. He also owned as many slaves as Harriet freed. We visited the Hermitage in Nashville a few years ago and saw how he placed the slave shacks in clear view of his mansion so he could keep an eye on them. He also “conquered” the Cherokee with his Indian Removal Act, causing at least 2,500 men, women and children to die marching The Trail of Tears. Conquering, I guess, was AJ’s ticket to being immortalized on the twenty dollar bill.
I am trying to hang on to hope that someday, saving people, giving them their freedom is measured as more heroic than conquering them. My students got it even if history didn’t present it that way. I wonder how long we will have to wait this time.
Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.