Heroic Efforts

In the wake of the horrific Las Vegas shooting last week, there was–justifiably–a great deal of media coverage on the first responders, police, and healthcare workers whose actions saved hundreds of lives.  But there was also attention paid to the actions of ordinary citizens who risked their own safety to save others, and those stories prompted me to think about the untold heroes in our everyday world.  Contemporary society idolizes pop stars, Youtubers, Hollywood names, and sports players, but the true heroes reside among us:

The blue-collar construction worker who rises at 5 AM on a blustery January morning, sipping cheap 7-11 coffee from a thermos, frost on his beard, to pour asphalt on a new county road for $9 an hour to feed his wife and three daughters.

The fifteen-year-old, openly gay sophomore boy who faces daily jeers and abuse in the halls of his high school, routinely shoved into lockers, tripped in the cafeteria, and bullied online, to advance our social mores by an almost imperceptible margin.

The young black couple in inner-city Baltimore who determinedly raise their two sons to be upstanding, polite, scholarly men amid the crushing weight of poverty and neighborhood gang violence.

The first-generation college student from an uneducated rural Hispanic family who stays awake until 4 AM studying her pre-med coursework, sacrificing friendships and social engagements, to fulfill her dream of becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

The 85-year-old widow with crippling rheumatoid arthritis and depression who grimaces through a 1/2-mile walk every Wednesday to read to elementary school foster kids at the local library.

The heroin addict struggling to come clean, bouncing in and out of rehab centers and methadone clinics, barely holding onto her waitress job, in order to give her 3-year-old daughter a better life.

The recently graduated, debt-strapped teacher who spends hours crafting original lesson plans, buying classroom supplies with his own food budget, because he is fixedly intent on not simply instructing but inspiring his students.

Often, when I walk the streets or in public places, I watch the people around me and wonder about their stories.  After the tragedy of last week, I am more certain than ever that each of them, and each of us, is heroic.

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Do Fish Sneeze?

I

Students (incredulous): Wait, are you, like, a PhD doctor or a real doctor?
Me (amused): The latter, though some of my grad school colleagues might object to the distinction.
Students (confused): Huh?
Me: I’m a real doctor.
Students (suspicious): No offense, but why is a doctor subbing high school chemistry?
Me (cagily): I have a gap year before starting my residency and figure sub teaching is a nice way to give back to the community.
(Truth: I took time off to ‘find myself’ and, after finding myself drunk, unemployed, and penniless in Costa Rica, found myself living at my parents’ house and substitute teaching in the school district I had attended as a youth.)
Me (redirecting): And on that note, could everyone get out the worksheet that Mr. McKinley gave you yesterday?
Female student (cheerleader, archetypal Valley Girl, annoyed): Um, Mr. ‘Doctor’ sir, we don’t actually work in this class.
Me: You do today. Now, who can tell me about ionic bonding?

II

Unknown teacher: Hi! Are you covering Mrs. Finny, today? I’m Ms. Ellmon, just next door, English lit.
Me: Pleased to meet you. This is my first time at the middle school; I usually do high school sciences.
Ms. Ellmon: Oh, well, welcome! The kids are great. 8th graders, ya know? Enthusiastic, but too cool to show it.  They’ll turn anything you say into a ’69’ joke.
Me: Do they even know what that means?
Ms. Ellmon: A couple we found under the gym bleachers last week certainly did. Anyways, watch out in fourth period for a kid named Wayne Fleeton. Crazy. Already suspended twice this year—robbing the soda machines and setting a desk on fire.
Random student (enters classroom): Whoa, sub day! Hi, Ms. E. Did you warn him about Wacko Wayne?
Ms. Ellmon: Terrence! No name-calling…but, yes, I did.
Terrence (appraising me): You don’t look like a softie. Maybe Wacko won’t kill you on the spot.
(Truth: Mr. Fleeton is a quiet, well-mannered, intelligent lad who is criminally bored in a watered-down public education system filled with ‘phonies,’ to use his own Salinger reference.)

III

Me: …and that covers most of what Ms. Hammel wanted you to know on forensic odontology. Remember, for the quiz tomorrow, focus mostly on the slides about tooth development and dental records. Any questions?
Sophomore male (jet black hair, Metallica t-shirt, urban camo pants, bright pink boots, earnest mien): Is it true that zombies can tear out a person’s windpipe with just their teeth?
Male chorus: Yeah, is it? It was on ‘Walking Dead’ last night.
Me: Hmm, mechanisms of injury during assaults by the undead. Excellent question. If I remember my neck anatomy correctly, the trachea—or ‘windpipe,’ as you call it—has three major cartilaginous anchor points, the most superior of which is often…

IV

Intercom: Attention teachers. We are under lockdown. Secure your classrooms.
Me: What the hell?!
Students (7th graders, tittering): Did you hear that? So cool! He said ‘hell.’ I like this sub.
Me: Guys and gals, is this a drill? The office didn’t mention it.
Students: They never tell us nothin’.
Me: Watch the double negatives. Ok, we’ll treat it as legit. Lights off. Close the door. Everyone into that corner, away from the windows. Now!
Students (alarmed, yelling): What if there’s really a shooter? I don’t want to die. So cool! Our Father, who art in heaven… Is the door locked? My brother said the glass is bulletproof. Your brother’s full of shit. Does anyone have a phone charger?
Me: Shut it! Sit down. No one talks, got it?
Intercom: Attention teachers. We are under lockdown. Secure your classrooms.
Students (whimpering): Oh god, oh god, oh god.
Young boy (sandy-haired, class clown, suddenly stands): Guys! What are we worried about? If anyone gets shot, we’ve got the Doctor Sub!
Classmates (pausing, considering): Hey…that’s right. We’ve got Doctor Sub!
Me: Shhh, be quiet. I can’t do much if the gunman kills us all.
(Truth: I can’t do much, regardless. The only gunshot wounds I saw in medical school were in PowerPoint slides during trauma lectures.)
Principal (several minutes later, opens classroom door): Excellent! Looks like you’ve got things under control. In case the office didn’t tell you, we’re having a lockdown drill this morning.

V

Me (taking attendance): Wow, where is everyone today?
Students: There’s track, tennis, and swim meets all week. Football team’s on a training-camp field trip. Baseball’s getting ready for tomorrow’s pep assembly. Cheer and pom are at nationals.
Me: Odd, I thought sports were extracurricular activities.

VI

Substitute teachers, ephemeral creatures,
Filling in quickly when staffers fall sickly.
Oftentimes pressed, though not knowing squat-diddles,
Answer they must life’s important big riddles:
Is it possible to break a penis?
Why is smoking so heinous?
What exactly does a spleen do?
Coffee makes you short. Is that true?
How did the Earth’s rotation start?
When should you listen to your heart?
Can ice freeze?
Do fish sneeze?