"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."
That is a quote from Arthur Ashe, someone who is a hero to many. Mr. Ashe is one of the greatest tennis players of all time, his career peaking in the late 1960s and 1970s. He was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame after compiling an impressive record, winning the Australian Open, the U.S, Open, and Wimbledon, three of tennis's four grand slam events, along with 73 other singles tournament titles. He did all this while confronting racism as one of the few African-Americans playing major tennis in that era.
Mr. Ashe suffered a heart attack at the extremely young age of 36. Among the health impacts of his treatments was that he was required to receive occasional blood transfusions. During one of these procedures and during a time when our blood supply was not tested the way it is now, he was infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This led him to become an activist in support of those suffering from the illness. At that time, we knew very little about AIDS, and those who had it were often the targets of hostility. Many thought our government should not use resources to find a cure. Mr. Ashe became a tireless supporter of research and acceptance. He died of complications from HIV in 1993 at the age of 49.
Faculty and staff of a certain age will remember Arthurs Ashe's heroism first hand. A Richmond, Virginia native, Mr. Ashe became the first African-American to be memorialized on that city's Monument Avenue, whose statues are more often devoted to Confederate military leaders. What is striking about his life is that while he had every reason to use his talent and fame for material gain, he instead used it for a more noble purpose - a purpose defined by the courage to devote himself to serving others by calling out unfairness.
When I was your age, I had one version of a hero. Typically it was a sports star who had the talent and will to hit a ball further or throw a ball faster than most. It was who I wanted to be. I thought those people were "cool." They showed courage under pressure, under the bright lights of cameras and big crowds.
Roberto Clemente was one such hero of mine. Man, I loved to watch that guy. His paradoxical spirit of joy and anger in the way he played was infectious. Some of you may have heroes like that now - actors, musicians, athletes - other people famous for their skill and celebrity. It is a natural thing for people to be in awe of those who have the skills and fame we wished we possessed.
What I did not realize until I got older was that Clemente was really a different kind of hero. When he first started playing in the mid-1950s, American sportswriters called him Bob Clemente. It was common at the time for the media to Anglicize the names of Hispanic ballplayers. Proud of his Puerto Rican heritage, Clemente refused to answer to "Bob," insisting that both in-person and in print, he be called Roberto. Some accused him of being uncooperative. In 1972, when a horrible earthquake hit the Central American country of Nicaragua, Clemente organized a relief effort, packing a plane of supplies to be taken to those in need. Tragically the plane crashed, killing all on board, including Roberto. He had given his life trying to help others.
Last month I shared with you that heroes can only be heroic when they leave their safe space. Courage is a requisite for heroism. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt defined courage as the willingness to do those things that you think you cannot do.
The ultimate hero story, of course, comes to us in the Gospel. In our reading today, we heard the story of Christ on the evening before his suffering and crucifixion questioning whether even he, the synthesis of God and man on earth, had the courage to undergo what he must. He hopes that God can remove the burden he must carry. Jesus says first,
"My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me."
However, we see in his next breath the courage of a hero, pushing forward to do God's will, to do what he must to save humankind from our sins.
While it is tempting to focus only on the well-known examples, it is also important to remember that just as inspirational, perhaps even more inspirational, are the everyday heroes. Those who toil quietly, sacrificing for those they care about.
The late journalist Tim Russert wrote about his hero, his father, Big Russ. Big Russ was heroic because he worked two jobs - one as a sanitation worker and the other as a newspaper delivery man - rarely sleeping - to feed and house his family and put his son, Tim, through school so that he could have the opportunity at a more comfortable life. Big Russ became known through his famous son, but there are countless people around us every day who are doing similarly heroic things, most we do not know about. While the pressure of being a professional athlete may sometimes be intense, imagine the pressure that people like Big Russ feel living paycheck to paycheck trying to feed and house their children. Pressure? That's real pressure—life with no financial safety net.
The children's author Mr. Rogers said,
"When I was very young, most of my childhood heroes wore capes, flew through the air, or picked up buildings with one arm. They were spectacular and got a lot of attention. But as I grew, my heroes changed, so that now I can honestly say that anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me."
So who are my heroes now? Who are the people I am inspired by because of the courage they show? Well, I have a few. But my heroes this year are sitting amongst us. They are your teachers. They are the staff. They are the people that have shown courage during this extraordinary school year.
As Head of ESD, back last March, I had no idea how we would endure this pandemic. The fundamental mission of any school is the teaching and nurturing of young people. Technology does allow some alternatives, but we know what was best for you, the students, is to bring you onto campus for face-to-face learning as much as possible. While we were confident back in the fall that we had created a safe environment for the employees and students, I know that some adults were concerned about returning. It took courage for those teachers and staff to come to campus every day. They have frequently done things this year that they did not think they could do.
I think about the facilities staff. They worked extra hard this year implementing cleaning procedures to make this as healthy an environment as possible. Our friends from Sage had to rethink the entire lunch procedure in order to serve three divisions in five different lunch seatings, including one that was in a separate building. And lastly our teachers. In addition to addressing all the personal stress that has been part of this pandemic, they had to completely reimagine their work. Any teacher will tell you the most exhausting year of teaching is usually their first as they learn how to teach. Well, this year every teacher was a first-year teacher in some ways. Their in-class routines were altered because of social distancing. They often had to juggle classes that had some students in-person while others were remote, something they had never done. All the while, they nurtured you through what was a difficult year emotionally, meeting extra time with many of you. This effort, to me, defines heroism.
Often we forget that examples of heroism are around us all the time. Many of you have parents or other family members who have been heroic - health care workers, first responders - exemplifying this month's virtue of responsibility in ways that we all can learn from. Today though, happens to be National Teacher Appreciation Day. At schools like ours, it is not only the classroom teachers who fit that definition. It is everyone here who plays a role in helping you, the students, find your life of purpose. I ask you to stop and think today about an adult or two on our campus who this year has been heroic to you. Find them and thank them.
I cannot thank each and every one of them individually, but my prayer today is that through this homily, each of them knows how much I have appreciated and respected what they have done this year. They are my heroes.