How Do We Define the Word “Hero?”

So today is September 11, 2013, marking 12 years since the worst attack on US soil in history. 12 years. I was sitting in a 6th grade gym class in Upstate NY, not really sure what was happening and clueless about why our teachers were going into that “bomb threat” mode that always was just a drill. Even watching the panic unfold on TVs throughout the day, it didn’t hit me that something really f-ing big had happened til I got home. I got home and my dad was there…my dad who was working 70+ hours a week and was lucky to make it to pick me up from swim practice on time at 8:30pm was home on the couch when I got home from school. It hit me then that this was something real. We had contacted my god mother in the city and she was fine, and my family and family friends in and around the city were fine, but the lasting impact of September 11, 2001, has yet to go away to this day.

Where I’m from, people fall under every kind of “ism” you can think of. We’ve got racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia…ultimately, people can be really close-minded (closed-minded? Sorry, I’ve gone back and forth on this word about 6 times). I didn’t realize at the ripe old age of 11 that people were going to immediately equate people with brown skin with being a terrorist just because of September 11. I learned this lesson very quickly when I almost got suspended for going off on a girl who used the term “towel head” in a class shortly thereafter. Now she didn’t know my history. When we were little, my mom took my brothers and I to a camp called Seeds of Peace in Otisfield, Maine, whose mission was to bring together the youth of today from warring nations in the hope that coexistence in this generation will lead to peace in future generations. This other student didn’t know that a student we knew from camp was gunned down as a teenager simply for being the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time. An 11 year old white girl from Upstate NY doesn’t usually know what racial profiling even means, much less have experience with it. But alas, I did and it gave me a different perspective when people immediately assumed that those who looked like my friends from all those summers were terrorists.

But alas, this post isn’t about me (shocking, I know). In thinking about how to reflect on such a horrific event, I started to try to see the silver lining. It can be hard to find anything positive in an event that shook our nation to its core, but I’m going to do my best.

When we think about what a hero is, I  think it’s natural to immediately think about the summer blockbusters and the comic books and the tights and capes. But that’s not who I think of. I think of a few different people:

Jay Jonas. Not a superhero alter ego. No the name plastered across billboards and running ads on Facebook for the summer hit film. Nope, Jay Jonas is a friend of my dad and his family from the time they were little kids. They grew up together, raising hell and avoiding the ever-so-popular wooden spoon my Grandma Kiernan was so fond of for spankings. I don’t know if my dad and Jay were firefighters together (I think they were), but Jay ended up being a full-time firefighter while my dad opted to take his penchant for flames into the kitchen. On September 11, 2001, Jay and his comrades ran into the North Tower and ended up being a handful of just 20 people who would survive the collapse of that tower. I’m not going to go into the nitty gritty details, but Jay and his team had stopped to help an older employee who was having trouble walking down the stairs, which is what left them in the tower at the time of its collapse. They survived, and Jay was made out to be a hero on multiple forms of media…something he never asked for. Now, I don’t think Jay would know me if he tripped over me (or vice versa for that matter). He might have met me back when I was the cutest child in the world, but we wouldn’t know each other now, but I still consider him my hero. He’ll probably never see this and that’s okay, but for the few of you who tune into my never-ending font of wisdom (aka this blog), I think he’s a name you need to know.

Jerry, Michael, and Sean Kiernan. I didn’t say this before, but my dad comes from a family of firefighters. Like I said, my dad is a professional chef, but his brother and two nephews–my uncle and cousins–remained in the firefighting/paramedic/helping people (sorry, Uncle Jerry, I never remember exactly what you do) field. My uncle is older than my dad–that’s all I’ll say–and will be the man out on Bear Mountain in NY looking for your lost friend/sibling/child/parent. My cousin Michael will go head first into a burning building in the city of Newburgh, NY (trust me, folks, it ain’t no Martha’s Vineyard), to save your lost friend/sibling/child/parent. Sean, my other cousin (who will probably call and curse me out if he finds out I wrote this because he hates all things social media), will tend to your sick friend/sibling/child/parent in the back of an ambulance all around the city of Newburgh in an attempt to save their life. None of them ever know what they’re showing up to at a call. They don’t know if they’re going to go home at the end of the day. But they do it. They do it every single day. If that’s not heroic, I don’t know what is.

The man who lives in the big beautiful house in my hometown. I don’t know his name, but I remember seeing him all around town with his beautiful daughter shortly after September 11. I didn’t know until my dad told me that his wife was in one of the towers on business on that day. They had JUST adopted their daughter before September 11. Instead of becoming a recluse which would be an easy answer (and quite frankly, something I think many of us would do whether it was a conscious decision or not), this man held his head high and brought his daughter all around town. Now I’m certainly not a parent and we all know I’m single as a dollar bill, so I don’t know what it means to have a spouse, but I don’t think that even if I were married with children I could begin to fathom the joy of having a child followed by the tragedy of losing a soulmate. I don’t know where this man lives now. I don’t know what his daughter is like. I don’t know if he’s remarried and I can’t even remember his name. I just remember that in the aftermath of a horrifying event, his little girl was able to bring such joy to everyone around her. I guess you can decide for yourself who the hero in this story is.

Now please don’t get me wrong, there are more than just these 5 heroes in the world, and there are certainly more than 5 heroes that came out of September 11, but alas, this is MY blog so you get to hear about MY heros. Their names aren’t going to be on billboards. They aren’t going to be in comics. I hope to the sweet baby Jesus that I never have to see any of them in tights and a cape, but they’re still heroes every single day.

To this day, I don’t know how to feel about September 11, 2001. It was an awful day. It was senseless. It led to political turmoil that still isn’t over. Racial and cultural tensions took on a whole new meaning that day. The nature of “first responding” changed forever. We now have NIMS training for personnel from my level up through presidents and chancellors of universities. Going to the airport has become an all day task even if you’re just catching a 90 minute flight. Life changed forever 12 years ago today. Lives were in such a senseless nature that it’s hard to even put words to it. Well, I say that, but I suppose I’ve said quite a bit. I don’t know how to end this on a lighter note, because this isn’t a light day, so  I’ll just say hug someone you love today, and never forget that a hero doesn’t have to (and probably shouldn’t) be the man in the tights all the time.

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