At some point in our lives, we’ve all been asked, “Who is your role model?” This is usually followed by, “And why?” which has always struck me as a smug little question, hanging so uselessly onto its predecessor. Any polysyllabic, interesting human will usually explain their answer without this prompt.
We might find this question on a college application, or perhaps in a job interview, and I’m sure we’ve all written our fair share of responses to it over our grade school years. When I’ve been asked this question in the past, I’ve always felt an odd pressure to choose someone colorful and unexpected. I wanted my answer to stand out, or for it to act as some kind of Rosetta Stone key to understanding my true self. Here are some of my past selections:
Muhammad Ali, 5th Grade (I did a project on him for Black History Month and thought this choice reflected my inner toughness and dedication to sports).
Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, 8th Grade (potential candidate for most admirable book character ever).
Colonel Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine Regiment at the Battle of Gettysburg, 9th Grade. He drove back the Confederates and held Little Round Top (at 13 I was deep in the clutches of a Civil War obsession, and I’d watched the movie Gettysburg in the theater three times).
Rachel Carson, College (I’d read Silent Spring in an Intro to Ecology class, and considered myself quite the budding environmentalist).
Christiane Amanpour, 25. She was and still is, a pretty badass journalist.
But while I admired these people for different reasons at different times in my life, they weren’t really my role models. Not really. I didn’t idolize them, or even truly look up to them. They impressed me. They made for intriguing conversation, and perhaps to some people they might have made me seem more interesting (or just plain weird), but they weren’t my heroes. The real answer, the college essay-deflating, uninteresting, honest to god conversation-killer truth is that my role models have always been my parents.
I can practically hear the college admission officers groaning. Not creative enough, they’d say. Doesn’t indicate an original thinker. Well, it’s true, my parents are my heroes. And while my response might not be terribly original, my parents certainly are. How can I possibly describe them to you? I’ll never get it quite right, but I think some of the magic is in the details.
My mother woke me up almost every morning of my young life by flinging up my window shade and hollering, Rise and shine like a loaf of sour dough bread! My father impressed upon my brother, sister and me at an early age the importance of flying kites and riding trains. He also affixed glow in the dark star stickers to my bedroom ceiling so that they were an accurate reflection of the planets and constellations in the night sky. My mother can hold a conversation with any person of any walk of life and charm the pants right off them while being 100% sincere. She does, as they say, light up the room. My father is the smartest man I know. An investment manager with a head for math, he also takes the time to craft book reviews on his company blog that are so well written I want to weep. My parents taught me to read, to think, and to laugh. They asked me what my favorite toy was for Christmas when I was two and thought it was marvelous when I answered, “Macaroni.” They taught me to be very silly, but serious when it counts. They inspire me with the strength of their love for one another, and their dedication to their family. Ali, Atticus and Christiane, you’ve got nothing on John and Mary E.
What a lovely post, Elizabeth! Parents should be our role models. They do the hard work in the trenches.
One more thing about your parents: Remember when you spoke on stage in Maui in 2006? After you finished talking about “Geography of Love” as your favorite book, your father turned to me with a hint of tears in his eyes and said, “I’m so proud of her!”
That’s a role model for everyone.
This is a beautiful post. It reminds me of an article I read years ago about baseball player Mark McGwire. Some guy chased him down in an inappropriate place and wanted him to sign something for his son. He said, “You’re his hero.” Mark told him, “Sir, you should be your son’s hero.” But we feel strange saying our parents are our heroes, don’t we? (As your past list shows.)
My parents will celebrate 50 years of marriage this summer. They are definitely my heroes!