Every story has a hero. The Princess Bride has Inigo Montoya. The Wizard of Oz has Dorothy. Star Wars has Luke Skywalker.
Everyone wants to be the hero of their own stories. This is true for the children sitting in our classrooms. They pretend to be superheroes, fighting the evil forces of the universe and saving the day. They wish to be heroes both in make-believe stories and in real life.
Brains Use Story to Make Sense of Things
In real life, humans are wired as storytellers. Our brains use story to make sense of the world. Brains crave order and will work to make sense of nonsensical events. The way a brain makes sense of things is through story. When children come from hard places, their brains try to make sense of the events by creating a story.
We can’t keep mothers from drinking or fathers from going to jail. We can’t stop cancer or mental illness. There are circumstances that aren’t fair and shouldn’t have to be faced. Every trail has obstacles. They are unavoidable.
Too often the stories children tell themselves are inaccurate. For example, my daughter Hannah was six when we adopted her. About a year after she joined our forever family, I tucked her into bed and she said, “I wish I could be reborn.”
Her words gave me pause. “Will you say more about that?” I asked.
“Well, Sam, he’s lucky because he’s always been here. That makes him easy to love, and he loves people back super easy. I’m not lucky. If I were reborn with you as my mom when I was a baby, then I’d be easy to love too. I’m not lucky.”
“You aren’t unlucky, Hannah. You are special and we love you.”
“The memories I have don’t feel very good. I wish I was reborn and could live like Sam,” Hannah said, her voice muffled from behind her plump comforter pulled up past her nose. I used to wish I could wave a magic wand that would take away all of her hurt. She is far from unlovable, and my heart cracked, hearing her wish to be reborn.
Hannah is who she is because of her experiences. They aren’t inspiration for sweet bedtime picture books, but they are a foundation for her to build a story of overcoming hardship and developing perseverance. She has to hear a different version of how her story goes. Learning a different version of how her story goes is much more powerful than a magic wand.
Hannah is not unlucky, not unlovable, and not bad at loving people back. She is a survivor who loved her little sister so much, she took care of her and helped her become a survivor, too. This is the story I recounted for Hannah. “Do you remember how you used to sleep next to Stephanie when she was a baby, to keep her warm?”
She nodded. “I gave her bottles, too.”
I smiled. “I know. You were really good at loving her. You still are. Remember how you gave her some of your dessert tonight at dinner?”
She giggled. “She really loves sweets!”
It takes time to help children learn a better version of the stories they are living. For me, as both a parent and an educator, I must remember that I can equip and empower others to tell a different version of the stories they are living. It’s what I did for Hannah. I placed her as the hero—she was brave and compassionate while protecting her little sister. You can almost hear the soundtrack playing in the background as the scene unfolded.
Too often the stories children tell themselves are inaccurate. It is essential to help them put words on the page to see the true story they are living. We help kids rewrite their stories when we show them how to be the heroes of their stories.
The thing about heroes is that they always have a guide. Inigo Montoya had Fezzik. Dorothy had the Good Witch. Luke had Yoda.
To help students rewrite their histories of hard stories into truth, they need a guide. Guides empower heroes. I love the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy meets the Wicked Witch of the West and snags the ruby slippers. Glinda guides Dorothy. We can learn a lot from Glinda about how to be an effective guide. Take a moment to watch the scene.
In this scene, Glinda inspires me to be a guide. She stays close to Dorothy, wrapping her arms around her to provide support and encouragement. Glinda gives Dorothy the tools (the ruby slippers), but doesn’t give her a lecture about how to use them. I admire the way Glinda offers just enough protection, just enough advice, and just enough resources to get started and then trusts Dorothy to figure out the steps of the journey.
Let’s consider the qualities of a guide based on your favorite story. Think of a familiar plot from a book or movie. Then open your notebook (paper or digital), set a timer for seven minutes, and do a quick-write, using the following questions as inspiration:
- What qualities of a guide do you see in Glinda?
- Who is the hero of your favorite story?
- Who is the guide?
- What are the guide’s actions?
- How are you inspired by the guide?
Each time I lead this exercise, I’m enamored with the favorite storylines selected. Even more remarkable are the commonalities between the guides. Harry Potter, Pretty Woman, Finding Nemo, and Gladiator all have characters who have served as solid inspiration for being a guide who empowers the hero.
As teachers we have the opportunity to guide students toward becoming the heroes of their own stories. With inspiration from the guides in our favorite plot lines, we can be equipped to help students become the heroes of their own stories.