As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

Heroes, Everyday People, Resilience. (January 2020)

What is a hero? In mythology and folklore, it’s a person of superhuman qualities and often semi-divine origin. As some of you know, I really enjoy all things Marvel and DC so if anyone ever wants to engage in a conversation over who’s the best superhero, I’m more than happy to get involved.

But that’s not the kind of hero I’m going to talk about today. The other way of defining a hero is as a person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. It is fitting, during Resilience for a Better Tomorrow, to acknowledge that resilience comes from all quarters and in all shapes and sizes. So today I’m going to tell the stories of 3 normal people who have overcome something enormous in their lives and gone on to do extraordinary things. You'll probably be familiar with these people, see if you can work out who I’m talking about as I go.

Person A grew up in Dunblane, Scotland. He had a traditional homelife and his family consisted of married parents and an older brother. He did lots of things other little boys did, and particularly enjoyed playing sports. One day, when he was 8 years old, he was enjoying a normal day at school and was on his way to the school gym with the rest of his class ready to have their PE lesson. All of a sudden, there was a lot of noise followed by the teachers quickly ushering him and the rest of his class into the head’s office where they were told to hide. It was about 9.30 in the morning.

It would turn out that his school was suffering what is now known to be the deadliest mass shooting in British history. That morning, a very disturbed 43-year-old man, walked calmly into Dunblane Primary School, headed for the school gym, and started firing wildly at a class of children, their teachers, and any passing students and staff he could see, before killing himself. In total, 32 people sustained gunshot wounds inflicted over a 3–4-minute period, 17 of whom were injured fatally. Of those who died, one was a teacher. The other 16 were all 5 or 6 years old children. During this shooting, Person A was being kept quiet and safe by his teachers, but as you can imagine, that day changed all of the members of that school community forever. His mother describes rushing to the school that day and not knowing whether her sons were safe. This was a time before mobile phones, so nobody knew anything. As she drove her sons home, she recalls stopping the car and having to explain to the boys what had happened. She says “they didn't know, and it was clearly going to be everywhere. It was an impossible thing to explain to children. I'm very glad they were too young to understand the enormity of it." But as you’ll know from your own childhood memories, you can remember being 8. You can remember falling of your bike and hurting yourself and other bad moments.

So what makes Person A a hero? There were lots of young children at school that day, and we haven’t heard of all of them. Many of them will be living perfectly normal lives. But Person A isn’t one of them. Remember I told you that as a little boy he loved sports? Well one particular sport stood out for him and that was tennis. Despite going through this truly awful experience, Person A continued to work hard at tennis, and started competing at higher and higher levels. In 1999, when he was only 11 years old, he won his first major youth championship in Florida. In 2004 at the age of 16, he became the junior world number 1, and was named the BBC's "Young Sports Personality of the Year." In 2005, he turned professional. In 2012, he won a gold medal at the London Olympics and claimed his first Grand Slam title. In 2013, he become Wimbledon's first British men's singles champion since 1936. In 2016, he won both his second Wimbledon title and second Olympic gold medal. However, none of this has been plain sailing. He’s had some huge defeats, some major injuries including hip problems and undergoing back surgery. But through all of this, he’s had enormous courage and conviction in his abilities, and his achievements truly are outstanding. The person? Andy Murray.

Person B was born in 1981 in Chicago. She was completely unknown to the wider world until she appeared on American Idol as a contestant in 2004 when she was 23. Prior to this, she had been earning a living singing Disney hits on a cruise ship. However, her dreams of winning the competition were not to come true and she was eliminated mid-series, coming in 7th place. Following her exit from American Idol, she faded out of the public eye for a couple of years. Finally, in 2006, she was signed to a record label, and also secured what would prove to be her big break, by being cast as a supporting role in a major film, in which she was widely praised for outshining the lead actress, and for which she went on to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. This in itself could be a tale of perseverance and resilience, getting knock after knock, rejection after rejection, but continually putting herself out there hoping for the next opportunity. However, Person B would have to overcome greater challenges than this. In 2008, just as Person B’s career was taking off, her mother and brother were found shot to death inside the Chicago home that her mother shared with Person B’s older sister, Julia. Julia was unharmed but her 7-year old son was missing. Three days later the FBI confirmed a body found on Chicago's West Side was Person A’s nephew; an autopsy indicated he had died from "multiple gunshot wounds". It transpired that Julia’s ex-husband, Person A’s ex-brother-in-law, was guilty of the three murders, and was later given 3 life-sentences for the crimes. Person B rarely talks about this dark time in her life, but has stated: "It's frustrating as hell to me to have somebody who ain't lost nothing try to talk to me about it. I want to say, 'Don't even bother, because you know nothing.' But you never know how much you can get through until you're going through it." The person? Jennifer Hudson.

The first 2 people are similar in age to me, but have obviously had drastically different lives. I see them both as heroes in their own ways. People who have worked hard and had the courage to persevere even when life has thrown enormous obstacles in their way. People who haven’t settled for good enough or listened to rejections and nay-sayers and worked their way to the top of their fields. The final person I want to talk about is also all of these things, but is not of my generation.

Person C was born in 1942 in Kentucky, he also excelled at sport, and his large 6’ 3” frame and nimble feet made him an exception in his chosen sport, giving him a unique style that proved to be a winning one. He won his first professional fight at the age of 18, and between 1960 and 1963 his fighting record stood at 19 – 0 with 15 knockouts. He was shaping up to be a sporting great, and his strong personality, self-belief, and religious and political convictions made him stand out in his sport. In 1964, before a championship fight, he was quoted as saying “Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.” Also, in 1964, the Vietnam War had been raging for nearly 10 years and the US had a new president after JFK was assassinated. Under new President Johnson, Person C was drafted into the military. However, he failed the Armed Forces qualifying test because his writing and spelling skills were inadequate.

However, in early 1966, the tests were revised, and Person C was reclassified as fit to serve. However, he refused to serve in the United States Army during the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector, because, and I quote, “War is against the teachings of the Holy Koran. I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.” Person C refused repeatedly to step forward when his name was called for his induction into the military, which was a criminal offence. Later that same day, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his title. Other boxing commissions followed suit. He was also sentenced to 5 years in prison, which was suspended during appeals against the conviction. In essence, he was willing to sacrifice everything for his principles. As he was no longer permitted to box in the USA, he did not fight from March 1967 to October 1970—from ages 25 to almost 29—as his case worked its way through the appeals process before his conviction was overturned in 1971. During this time of inactivity, as opposition to the Vietnam War began to grow and Person C's stance gained sympathy, he spoke at colleges across the nation, criticizing the Vietnam War and advocating African-American pride and racial justice.

As soon as Person C was eligible, once again, for a boxing license, the “Fight of the Century”, was organised. It was one of the most eagerly anticipated bouts of all time and remains one of the most famous. It featured two skilled, undefeated fighters, both of whom had reasonable claims to the heavyweight crown. The fight lived up to the hype, with Person C’s opponent securing victory with a hard left hook in the 15th and final round and won on points. It was Person C’s first professional loss, and not surprising after years of being unable to participate in his sport because of his religious beliefs.

Shortly after the famous “Fight of the Century” came the just as famous “Rumble in the Jungle”, named as such because it took place in the Congo – Person C wanted the fight to be there to help give an economic boost to this part of Africa. Against the odds, Person C won the match in the eighth round. From their Person C’s career continued to build and his fame became astronomical. Even in retirement, Person C was well known, first as an athlete and then as an ambassador for his illness- Parkinson's Disease. So, who was Person C who overcame hardships throughout his professional life and then different hardships in his retirement, but showed true resilience and conviction of his own principles? Person C is Mohammad Ali, and his attitude to his own ambitions and beliefs is best summed up by him. He has said: “I’m not the greatest; I’m the double greatest. Not only do I knock ’em out, I pick the round. “

by Claire Scott