The Narrowism of Heroism

I was in a ferry line earlier this week—and saw the road sign you may well be familiar with: “Report ferry line cutters”—followed by the phone number you’re supposed to call: “1-877-764-HERO.”
Really? Hero?

I naively always thought of heroes as people who changed the world, did something truly
great, achieved courageous things and inspired others. You know, George Washington, Gandhi, Oskar Schindler, Amelia Earhart, Harriet Tubman—guys like that.

But squealing on someone else? A hero?

It all takes me back to the 7th grade at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School—a day I was very worried. After all, teachers did not normally tell a kid to stay after class unless there was trouble. I braced for the worst.
“Pat,” My nun teacher, Sister Mildred Marie, began, “I have some news for you.” I swallowed hard, as she continued. “Have you ever heard of The Leaders Club?” she asked.

“No,” I said, waiting to be hit over the head with such a club.

“It’s an honorary organization that only the very most special students are chosen to be a part of,” Sister said. “And you, Pat, have been selected.”

I stood stunned, uncomprehending. She filled in the blank: “It means that you have been
identified as a school LEADER! A hero!”

She presented me with an official patch that could be sewn onto my school sweater: The Leaders Club. It would tell the school, the city and the world that a leader was in their midst.
Would I be a kind, benevolent leader—or a cruel, despotic one? I figured I would try both approaches and see which one I liked best.

The next day, Sister herded me and six other new “leaders” into a room. “You will be
role models for the other students in our school,” she told us. “It’s your job not only to be
good examples yourselves, but to point out the bad apples in our school.”
I raised my hand. “What about oranges?” I asked.

“This is not about fruit, Pat,” she said. “It’s about helping to spot the troublemakers around here.”
We all nodded knowingly.

“So whenever one of you sees a student cheating on a test, passing notes during class or
misbehaving during recess—your job is to report it to me,” Sister told us. Her eyes narrowed. “I’ll take it from there.” I swallowed even harder than the time I swallowed earlier in this column.

The next day, when the bell for morning recess was sounded, I headed for the door with a sense of nobility and purpose. My The Leaders Club patch was sewn onto my sweater sleeve like a stripe on a general’s uniform. Or a Gestapo’s.

I scanned the playground looking for miscreants. It didn’t take long.
I spotted Donnie Marcoulier over by the fence. He had the biggest nostrils I had ever seen on a human—made even wider when he was up to no good. He had just told Judy Leageld there was a spider on her shoulder. She screamed and ran hysterically across the playground.

There was, of course, no spider. Donnie had made it up—and as Judy ran, he just laughed. Evildoers are that way. I learned that from the movies.
As a newly appointed “leader” I immediately reported Donnie’s action to Sister. Soon, I saw her collar him on the playground—and before long the budding criminal was on his way to the principal’s office.
I should have felt proud of my leadership, but I didn’t. I felt more like I had just led a lamb off to slaughter. Never mind that Donnie looked more like a pig than a lamb—it just felt wrong.
When Donnie returned to the classroom his nostrils were as wide and enveloping as a two-door airplane hangar. He sat two rows over from me; his eyes boring into me like a wood-burning kit—saying quite clearly, “Wait until after school.”

I have since believed that Donnie would have made a skillful plastic surgeon—he certainly did an excellent job that day of rearranging my face.

To make matters worse, Donnie wore two rings on his punching hand—the equivalent of wearing a half-set of brass knuckles.
Thanks to Donnie, I was no longer just a member of The Leaders Club. I was in The Bleeders Club too.
The next day, I resigned from my leadership role. Sister asked me why. I told her straight out: “It just seems to me that The Leaders Club is more like The Stoolies Club,” I said.
I thought Sister would be angry, but her response was not what I expected. “You expressed that very well, Pat,” she said. “Especially for someone with a fat lip.”
I never knew why, but within a week The Leaders Club was history. Sister disbanded it deciding it had put the chosen students in a difficult spot. In my case, it had put my face in a difficult spot—specifically Donnie’s ring-bedecked fist.

Personally, I never felt The Leaders’ Club should have been disbanded. It just needed a name change.
Dirty, Rotten Ratfinks’ Club rings a bell.

And truth is, 1-877-764-DIRTYROTTENRATFINK would make an awfully long ferry line cutter phone number.