Our heroes matter


Summer. A time to take stock. To watch films and read stories about people and dream. To watch cricket…

Childhood heroes

This week I watched Michael Holding’s 1976 massacre of England during a rain-stopped-play moment in the recent England thrashing of South Africa in the 3rd Test. A re-run of Holding splintering England wickets. Silky, smooth and menacing. An utterly beautiful bowler. ‘Whispering Death’ was his epithet because umpires said his run-up to bowl was so graceful they couldn’t hear him. 10 years old and I wanted to be him.

guardian-e1501592537868.jpg  (Photo: The Guardian)

It was him I was trying to emulate as I’d practised with my brothers on the local primary school playground every morning of the summer holidays of that long hot summer. I could do all the bowling actions: Tony Greig, Joel Garner, Denis Lillee, Bob Willis. But Michael Holding was the one. The first bowler’s name on everybody’s Rest of the World team.

Whether consciously or not, our choice of heroes are a reflection of our childhood,  outlook on life and perhaps an indication of the kind of person or leader we aspire to be. I’ve listened to and led many a heroes assembly; boys or girls, sporting or spiritual, literary or political, superheroes or ordinary folks who stepped up and became great. I’ve tried to steer clear of the cliched or overexposed; Mother Teresa and MLK and Gandhi, the Michael Jordan clips and the Steve Jobs miracles. Great though they are.

 (Photo: Richie Hopson)

Our own choice of hero/role model is inevitably personal: One person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist. As a geography teacher, married to a biologist – I get that Dave Goulson (‘A Sting in the Tale’), is the bee-saviour come to earth, but has she yet grasped the majesty that is Robert Macfarlane’s writing about Mountains and Wilderness? Probably not.

Our students are growing up in a moral world of Trump-filled self promotion, and a global economy where we know the cost of a Neymar, but not the value of human dignity. Perhaps this is as good a time to explore who it is that we look up to, aspire to be and put on our private pedestals.


Never mind, there are deep wells of hero-gurus for all of us to choose from: Atwood or Aurelius? Balding or The Brownlees? Corden or Cook (England ex-skipper of course!)?Dench or de Botton? Farah or Fry? Murray or Mailer?  Lennox or Lewis (see what I did there?) Toksvig or Tolkien? Wilberforce or Winfrey or Waite?  Each one is a story. Unerringly world class in their field, or battling through affliction or prejudice, or just plain bloody-minded.


Hercules, the Roman adaptation of the Greek hero Heracles, was rewarded for his suffering through the twelve labours with the promise that he would live forever among the gods at Mount Olympus.


Olympic endeavours, symbolic of the twelve labours, are a metaphor and a mathematical point of reference for what is physically heroic in our eyes. Occasionally history and sport align beautifully and the story becomes bigger than the event itself. Just so when Jesse Owens stepped up and won four gold medals and becoming the most successful athlete at the 1936 Games. As a black man he was credited with “single-handedly crushing Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy”.


“Greatness requires longevity. It’s not one perfect performance. Redgrave is not only a person. Redgrave is also a quality. Napolean would ask his generals: ‘Has he luck?’ I ask of athletes: ‘Has he Redgrave?’ Redgrave is the ability to go beyond yourself. Redgrave rowed more miles, lifted more weights, erged more ergoes. When Redgrave went into battle, he knew that all the others had the choice to work just as hard as he had done, and they’d chosen not to.” Simon Barnes

sr-peter-spurrier.jpg(Photo: Peter Spurrier)

Sometimes ordinary family members become stars and then they become something else completely. The state of the nation and the beautiful collision of cultures creates the conditions and a moment for a star to shine. And we love them all the more for it.

Child heroes 

From a very early age Malala Yousafzai was an activist for female education. At 12 she was supporting the education of women in her native Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan, where the local Taliban had banned girls from attending school. She was influenced by her parents who ran a chain of schools & by 13 she had already written a blog (under a pseudonym) describing life during Taliban occupation. She gave interviews in newspapers and on TV, and was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize by one of my heroes Desmond Tutu.

malala-yousafzai-ftr-e1501592585957.jpg“When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful”  M Yousafzai

On 9 October 2012, Malala was injured after a Taliban gunman tried to kill her. She was treated in Rawalpindi then later at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. The murder attempt created a huge following and in January 2013 Deutsche Welle wrote that she was probably “the most famous teenager in the world. In an assembly in March I compared her with Jennifer Lawrence (Catniss Everdeen of ‘Hunger Games’ fame) and suggested to western teenagers that Malala was probably more well known across the world. I was amazed at their knowledge of her. Aged 17, she became the youngest-ever Nobel Prize winner and she is now one of the world’s most influential people (Time Magazine).

What is intriguing is how quickly we have grasped this girl to our collective hearts. With so many one-dimensional role models out there, this young woman resonates incredible strength. Her level of courage to take on a heroic role in the international spotlight is attractive, along with rock-solid personal attributes. She has harnessed the power of media to be a positive influence – a refreshing change from the media’s tendency to pull someone down as soon as they have built them up.

The truth of course is that there are hundreds of other Malalas in non-western countries, and we need to teach our children to dispel the idea that most role models are British or American, wear jeans and sunglasses and emerge phoenix-like from a singing contest. Malala’s story also reinforces the incredible force young people have for justice.  In schools we can help open their eyes to inhumanity across the world (human trafficking, modern slavery, FGM) and connect young people with the amazing groups and unsung heroes fighting for justice.

Action heroes bear-grylls.jpg(Photo: Martin Holland)

Starring in heroic documentaries, writing self-improvement books, breaking his back in a fall over an African desert and trekking with Barak Obama, theres not much that BG hasn’t done. The most significant thing about him seems to me how ‘at ease’ he is. Supremely comfortable in his own skin, whether planning a route up Everest, willing a group of twenty-somethings through a rainforest or talking about his faith. He exudes ‘can do’, warmth and compassion. He is one of the great boys-own scouting role models.

Psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane studied the bystander effect, the failure of people to help in emergencies. People diffuse responsibility and assume that others should do the heroic work. Emergencies are rare and dangerous, and to be heroic, we must sometimes be willing to put our own lives at risk. All of which explains why so few are heroes.

But amazing though their work is, our perspective on being heroic is not just about how the the likes of Bear Grylls save us in a crisis. A close look at his books demonstrates his focus on developing character and bringing a particular personal attitude to each situation life throws at us.


Thinking heroes

Poets, novelists, mathematicians, scientists, educationalists, actors or politicians all challenge and grow our thinking. Along with many parents I have a soft spot for JKR, because she was one of the catalysts to springboard my boys into reading, along with Michelle Paver with her Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series. Maybe our heroes are women who should be paid more for the excellence that they do, or at least as much as their male counterparts. Maybe we should shout more about this.


Or perhaps they have a brain the size of Wales, the scouring honesty, warmth and compassion of the techno-geek that is cricket-loving Stephen Fry. Searingly honest about his own battles with mental health and manic depression, he may not the most obvious young person’s hero, but why not? His approach to achieving success through work-life balance is educational for young people under the illusion of a get-rich quick culture:


“The idea of balancing one against the other makes no sense. My work isn’t against my own life – work is my life. Everyone I know who is successful works, and works hard. Really hard. Maybe that should be my advice: work your bloody bollocks off.”

Everyone knows how many years Nelson Mandela was incarcerated in prison. Few young people know the name Aung San Suu Kyi, or that she spent 15 years as a political prisoner, just as Mandela’s incarceration on Robben Island was ending. Politician and now the first Leader of the National League for Democracy in Myanmar (previously Burma, she rose to prominence in the 1988 Uprisings, and in the 1990 elections, she won 81% of the seats in Parliament, but the results were cancelled and she was put under house arrest.

moral-heroes-e1501592638429.jpg(Photo – Telegraph)

She should be the world’s most acclaimed female world leader. But in the Guardian earlier this year Poppy McPherson was critical of her first year in power, against her enormous build up: “The script called for the lead actor, a Nobel prize winner, to seize control of a country, bring peace where there was conflict and prosperity where there was poverty. But like many political dramas the script has not been followed by Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi.”

A year since she came to power there is now escalating ethnic conflict and an army crackdown. Perhaps we expected Suu Kyi to do a Mandela. Maybe we are too impatient to see the fruits of what these moral giants should achieve when launched on the big stage.

Conversely there are those anonymous people who step into history and simply and silently make a stand. Their strength becomes a touchstone for all of us to show more courage when faced with lesser obstacles in our daily lives.



Almost all of literature and film seems to understand that orthodox heroes are inherently boring. Too goody-goody. So they draw us into the big themes through the imperfections of the antihero, who lack the conventional qualities of morality, courage and high ideals.

“I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs 215 pounds. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab or the grey truck outside, and at this altitude, I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking. How can I know that and not know who I am?” Jason Bourne


We urge Jason Bourne on because of the hand that the ‘Treadstone’ system has dealt him, and so we forgive him his violent journey to discover his identity. We laugh at clumsy, ageing Hans Solo and his tired spaceship (really have I got to come and save you from the Death Star again?) because he’s a charmer and a smuggler who would rather be anywhere else but working for the Resistance. Children and adult literature seems stuffed full of unlikely heroes – Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, JK Rowling’s Severus Snape, The Bard’s Hamlet, reluctant tragic-hero and procrastinator. We read and watch and identify with antiheroes because they make us feel better about who were are. We could be them.

Personal heroes

We all have heroes that resonate personally. There is nothing not to love about Desmond Tutu. From his diminutive size to his explosive smile you cannot help but be drawn in. From a social rights activist he rose to worldwide fame during the 1980s as a vigorous opponent of apartheid. He was the first black Archbishop of Cape Town. At the end of apartheid, Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and as well as coining the term “Rainbow Nation” was probably mostly responsible for such a bloodless transition from apartheid. He was the quieter foil to the public Mandela. He gets up at 4am each day for his morning walk and prayers.

tutudesmond-e1501592687911.jpg(Photo: Adam Jacobs)

I lived in Africa for 2 years and write about that experience here. While there I visited a Leprosy Settlement in N Zimbabwe where a friend was nursing. I met elderly couples cruelly disfigured by leprosy and I saw up close what I had imagined was a mediaeval, biblical plague. People had come from all corners of Zimbabwe to meet like-bodied people. To be loved unconditionally. To marry. Beyond the stage of infection but not immune from persecution. Some heroes feel more personal to us and because of that experience, although I never met him, Dr. Paul Brand (1914–2003) is a legend for me. He pioneered hand tendon transfer techniques for people with leprosy. He was the first doctor to realise that leprosy did not cause the rotting away of tissue, but that it was the loss of sensation of pain which made sufferers at risk to injury. Along with writer Philip Yancey, Brand wrote about his own philosophy about the valuable properties of pain in “Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants”. 


As a medical leader, he sought solitude. His response to acclaim was the opposite of our bare-your-soul Twitter generation. He lived far away from the centre of medical research.  On a tiny salary he treated people with gentle dignity, reconstructed hands and toes, built relationships, cured people.

Ordinary heroes

I think we love ‘A Wonderful Life’ because we can all identify with Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey; a flawed, sad fellow who feels his life has meant nothing. His is the ultimate mid-life crisis. At our lowest ebb, we see ourselves in him.  Wendell Jamieson writes: “My affection for ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ has never waned, despite the film’s overexposure and sugar-sweet marketing, it is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams.”


The way in which we hold onto our heroes is to somehow remain in childhood, to cling to our dreams. We know that they in some small way represent our better selves, our best selves. To misquote Clarence the Angel from Wonderful Life: “Each of our life touches so many other lives. When we aren’t around it leaves an awful hole, doesn’t it?”


To qualify as truly heroic it seems that we look for people who bring moral courage or physical strength, not only to achieve something extraordinary for themselves, but beyond that to influence our nation’s destiny at a key point in history. Children and adults need them because however wonderful parents are, Philip Larkin’s poetic reminder will always have a grain of truth. We need something to use as a compass needle of cool, a plumb line of perfection. 

Here are 5 practical steps in encouraging children to think through their heroes:

  1. Acknowledge who our heroes are and get children to talk about theirs. Create research opportunities in our subjects for pupils to explore their stars and what it is that really makes them heroic. Share personally your role models – this is so powerful: give a little of yourself.
  2. Dwell on character. Dig under the surface of the who and get to the why.
  3. Challenge superficial thinking and the instant celebrity nature of our culture. What would the world look like if we valued and rewarded heroic acts more than football players? How did each hero show resilience and surmount obstacles?
  4. Encourage boys to think about female heroes more. Very young children are mad about Superheroes. What is that about!? There is a lot of healthy energy in this desperate desire for special power…how can we channel this?!
  5. Remember the incredible force young people have for justice and harness this.  In schools we can use our rich curriculum to open their eyes to inhumanity across the world (human trafficking, modern slavery, FGM) and explore the incredible organisations fighting for justice.

Love the Quote: “I do my homework. That’s why people like me.” Clare Balding

You could read: “If I could tell you just one thing…”  by Richard Reed. It’s a great read packed full of original modern day heroes.



One thought on “Our heroes matter

  1. Pingback: Building Character: Being More Marcus | ianfrostblog

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