As a girl, all of my heroes were make-believe ones. I idolized them for things like strength, courage, independence, leadership, kindness, empathy, their sense of right and wrong.
One of my favorite superheroes has always been Rogue for a number of reasons. She was one of the strongest of all the X-Men. She had the ability to absorb the energy of others, but she was unable to control that power. If she touched someone or held onto them for too long, she could take their very life force and put them in a coma (à la how she took Ms. Marvel’s powers). This led to her being somewhat of a loner; she suffered much emotional pain and pushed others away because she feared she would hurt them. Despite that, Rogue managed to find love with fellow X-Man Gambit and eventually learned to control her powers, not the reverse. That growth, I think, was her real strength.
My biggest girlhood hero was without a doubt Princess Leia. From the time I first discovered Star Wars, I wanted to be like her. She was fiercely independent, stood up for a cause she believed in, was able to lead and inspire others, was brave in the face of danger, but she was also kind. The moment of the Star Wars saga that most impressed me about Leia was not when she showed some skill with the Force or fought off stormtroopers, but when she suffered her greatest loss. When Tarkin blows up her home planet, killing everyone she loves in an instant, he does it because he wants to cause her pain, but she refuses to react to the incident and instead shows the utmost fortitude. That must have been the worst moment of her life, but she didn’t let him see her cry or rage; that takes some serious guts. I imagine that when she allowed herself to grieve later in private, it was immense, but there was no way she was going to give Tarkin and Vader the satisfaction.
In grad school, I discovered what has come to be my favorite poem, Carol Ann Duffy’s “Little Red-Cap.” It’s a retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood fairytale where Red ultimately saves herself from the Wolf, becoming her own hero in a sense. She initially believes that the Wolf has all the answers, that she can only have access to poetry through him, but it’s when she is alone that she finds true poetry. She realizes that she doesn’t need the wolf, that what she sought was within her all along. The poem ends with the beautiful line “Out of the forest I come with my flowers, singing, all alone.” That brave, triumphant girl was also my hero for she was a survivor who would write her own story.
As I’ve gotten older, it’s become easier for me to find things that I admire in the women that I actually know and to see them as heroes as well. So far, my biggest real-life hero has been my advisor and mentor from my grad school days at Kent, Professor Teresa N. Washington. She displayed some of the same traits that I saw in my make-believe heroes of old, traits that I still admire in others and that I now strive to emulate.
When Teresa came to campus to interview for a position in the English program, she gave a presentation and Q&A about her work, which I attended. One of the other professors in the department was incredibly disrespectful and insulting in her criticism. I was appalled by this other woman’s negative comments and behavior and couldn’t help noting the contrast between her and Teresa who sat calmly, keeping her cool, projecting a quiet strength, while someone else attacked not only her work but her beliefs. How easy it would’ve been for her to snipe back at her, but I never saw even a twinge of annoyance in her face. She amazed me.
She showed that same strength when the racism in the course that I took with her reached its peak. She, the professor, was the only African American person in that classroom and she was trying to open some ignorant people’s eyes and they didn’t like it. The negative atmosphere in the classroom built over the course of the semester until it became a terribly palpable force. I could feel the hatred around me so much it made me literally sick to my stomach. I felt my skin crawling and prickling from the force of all that negative energy and I wanted to run from the room. It was one of the ugliest things I’ve ever felt and I knew instinctively that it was coming from the people around me and that it was directed at Teresa. If it made me feel that way, I thought, then what must she, its target, have felt? God, the strength of composure that woman possessed! She didn’t react, didn’t raise her voice or break down. She just looked at us and said, “I’m not going to talk today,” and instead said she was going to let us watch a video that we could talk about if we wished, answer some questions afterward that we would hand in, then she turned on a movie and left the room. What happened next was a free-for-all slamming of her and as we watched a beautifully moving scene of an African American man walking on water, I heard a guy to my right say, “Why are we watching this?” and the woman next to me, who had said she wanted to teach African American literature, say in reply, “They always like to show stuff like this.”
The words set me off. I couldn’t sit there and let those people say such rotten things about a woman for whom I had great respect and who didn’t deserve that sort of treatment and I did not possess the grace of my mentor. For the life of me, I cannot remember what I said that day, but whatever it was, I was shaking afterward and the woman who’d made the ignorant comment in the first place came to my office the next day to apologize because I had been so upset by the conversation. All I said to her was, “I’m not the one you should be apologizing to.”
Teresa ended up scrapping her lesson for The Salt Eaters that semester as well, just gave up, didn’t teach anything. I was disappointed, but understood why she’d done it. When I met with her for one of my advisory sessions after the semester had ended, she told me that the night before the class, the author’s spirit had spoken to her, told her that she shouldn’t do it because “they don’t deserve it.” Add wisdom to her list of admirable traits.
Teresa showed something else that I greatly admired and that is forgiveness. She told me that some of the students from the class had later come to her to apologize and she, being the figure of grace that she was, didn’t throw anything back at them or shun them, but instead chose to help them find another way to be. She said she was grateful for their willingness to change. Another “wow” moment for me because when someone has disrespected me or injured me, I have wanted more than anything to tell them to fuck off. And I have done that many times. But it’s much harder and takes far more strength and composure not to react but instead to realize that whatever rotten thing someone did or said to you isn’t really about you at all, but about them. Maybe they’re hurting just like you were, so while I’m a proponent of calling people on their meanness, I don’t think we need to be mean to them in return. When we do, I guess we’re kind of like Rogue, holding onto Ms. Marvel for too long and taking all of their stuff into ourselves.
Lately, I’ve realized something. All those stories of heroic women I’ve loved so much and all the ones that I’ve been trying to write for years about strong women who are able to get themselves out of bad situations and take back their lives are my own. Like Little Red-Cap, I was lost in the woods for a very long time, living through and for others, allowing them to guide me because I didn’t believe in myself or my dreams, and I became tangled in the thorns of depression and anxiety as a result, so much so that I couldn’t find a way out. It takes years to find the courage to slay those wolves, but I did it. Now my goal is to be like the heroes that I’ve known, to be strong like them, yes, but more importantly, to grow and learn like they did, to help others, and to demonstrate grace. By doing so, I hope to become something that I never thought I would be—my own hero.