Courage in the Clutch

Last week a somewhat discouraged IB1 (Grade 11) boy stopped by to talk. He was disappointed that his peers hadn’t elected him to any of the leadership positions for next year, and he struggled to make sense of it all. To a 17 year-old, there is a pretty clear link between “title” and “leadership,” and despite my attempts to get him to see that real leadership isn’t limited to “position,” he walked away feeling a bit empty.

Later that day I came across Nicholas D. Kristof’s piece, “Bullets Over Bejing” in the New York Times, in which he describes what happened in and around Tiananmen Square 20 years ago this week. Seven sentences brought me up short:

“On the old airport road that same night, truckloads of troops were entering the city from the east. A middle-aged bus driver saw them and quickly blocked the road with his bus.

 “Move aside,” the troops shouted.

 “I won’t let you attack the students,” the bus driver retorted defiantly.

The troops pointed their guns at the bus driver and ordered him to move the bus aside. Instead, he plucked the keys from the ignition and hurled them into the bushes beside the road to ensure that no one could drive that bus away. The man was arrested; I don’t know what happened to him.”

I found myself thinking about that bus driver and his wildly impulsive courage. Where did that strength come from? It clearly had nothing to do with any titles or positions he had ever held; it came from somewhere deep inside.  Somewhere in his character or his conscience there was a profound sense of right and wrong, and in this particular instance, that impulsive sense was so powerful that it allowed him to put his life on the line.

I think it was Aristotle who said, “We become courageous by doing courageous things” and that we should think of courage as a muscle that needs to be worked in order to develop. In other words, courage isn’t a matter of simple cognition; it’s not about thinking more clearly or more strategically. It’s about the doing.

When I put myself in that bus driver’s seat, it’s easier to see Barney Fife rather than Clint Eastwood blinking back at those soldiers. But that sense of meeting the moment, of having the ability to act on our best impulses is something we want for our boys – even if they don’t yet see themselves as “leaders.”

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