The Next American Heroes
(Article first written back in 1997 for a newspaper I was interning for- ‘The Resident’ in NYC)
Much of a child’s learning comes from the examples set forth by those who influenced them. At the 92nd St. Y the fun-filled exhibits in the “Discover America” museum can set children on their way to becoming influential people by inspiring them to stand up for what they believe in.
A series of questions such as: “Who is a hero to you?” and “What is a heroic act?” are posed to help children explore what it means to be a hero. The theory is that having heroes and role models helps children form their identities while they are still growing .These interactive exhibits illustrate thatwho a child wants to be is as important as what a child wants to be. They are geared to young people ages 3 to 10, with the goal of helping them understand the issues of community, the qualities that make someone a hero and what it means to be an American.
“A hero can be anyone from a child’s family, community or school,” Said Fretta Reitzes, the director of the 92nd Street Y Center for Youth and Family. “Heroes from the past as well as from the present are equally important in a child’s life. Children have a responsibility to learn about American history because this is their home.”
One exhibit literally opens doors to the lives of well-known and not so well-known heroes from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. These doors reveal people who have been brave enough to take a stand for something they believe is important. Profiled behind these doors are Jackie Robinson, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr., Golda Meir, Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, Harriet Tubman, Chief Joseph, Clara Barton, and Rosa Parks. Children in the program find a picture of the hero or heroine and a brief summary of their lives and the way they changed society by taking a stand for what they believed in.
Storytelling is another way the students learn about heroes. First, the story of Noah’s Ark is told, and then children are allowed to explore its model for themselves and act out the story using hand puppets. A smaller arc is also available for younger children. The moral of this story is that working together as a community makes a big difference. Children can look at pictures of popular heroes such as firemen and hospital workers or piece them together in a puzzle.
Learning about what it means to be an American and American values is another subject presented in a manner entertaining to children. They can sit down with life-size puppets of Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln at a table where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are on display. The children are asked “What do you think they are talking about?” and “What do you want to ask them?”
On the morning of May 8, the Primary School of the Creative Arts came to visit “Discover America.”
“They were very thoughtful, eager to get involved and eager to come back for another visit,” said Reitzes. The children wrote down who they thought was a hero to them and why. These papers were hung on the walls declaring such heroes as: Mom and Dad, President Clinton, policemen, grandmothers and brothers. These are heroes to the children because they “work hard” or because they “bring bad guys to jail.” Five schools have already visited “Discover America” and 45 more schools are scheduled to visit.
Children are encouraged to look into the future by entering outer space in a glow-in-the-dark room where they can wear space helmets and “leave their mark on the future” in the form of a handprint on the wall. They are asked to tell the other “astronauts” what they think is important for tomorrow’s America. The “Ticket to the Future” exhibit asks “Who is important in the community you live in?” It also makes the children decide what they want tomorrow’s America to have and what they don’t want in it. The “Star Ticket” encourages children to share what is important to them, what they are good at, what they worry about and what they can contribute to a new community.
Every child feels special by the time they are ready to leave because they learn that someday they can be a hero and make a difference in the world. A mirror awaits children as they are leaving and on it are the questions “Who are you now?” and “Who will you be?” This sets their minds working on how they can become a hero too.
This program is presented in collaboration with My Jewish Discovery Place of greater Los Angeles and is part of the Y’s Project America, which explores and celebrates the many meanings of America.
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