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James Woody: Our Children's Heroes

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James Woody is the executive director of Bishop Walker School for Boys in Southeast D.C.
Dana Farrington
James Woody is the executive director of Bishop Walker School for Boys in Southeast D.C.

In 1997 I was profiled in a local newspaper as a "doer," someone who was making a difference in the community. As part of the profile I was asked a rather perfunctory question: "If you could have lunch with anyone in the world, who would it be?" Without hesitation, I answered, "Desmond Tutu."

I could think of no greater transformative figure of the 20th century. His outspoken insistence on equal rights and understanding of the power of forgiveness and cooperation was an inspiration to me.

A personal highlight of my life occurred 10 years later, when I had the privilege of having lunch with Bishop Tutu as part of a group that came together to launch a tuition-free private school for boys in an underserved community in Southeast D.C. in honor of Bishop Tutu's dear friend, Bishop John Walker.

The following year, just after the historic 2008 presidential election, Tutu visited the school and read to our pre-K students from his children's book, "God's Dream." At the conclusion of the book, Bishop Tutu asked our students what they dreamed of becoming. The first student to speak enthusiastically and passionately answered, "Batman."

The floodgates had been opened, and this initial reply was followed by a loud litany of superheroes from the other boys. Somewhat embarrassed, I tried unsuccessfully to steer the conversation in a more serious direction. In a wise and gentle way, Bishop Tutu offered that while there is nothing wrong with wanting to be a superhero, perhaps our boys could consider a more down-to-earth aspiration, like president of the United States.

Having been born at a time when the prospect of an African-American man becoming president was beyond my comprehension, I was suddenly struck by the realization that the recent election, regardless of one's political persuasion, had changed the course of history. I only hoped that our young students would one day appreciate the fact that one of my personal heroes had told them that their dreams could realistically include something that I had for most of my life considered to be unattainable.

A few weeks ago, the same group of boys who had so attentively sat at Bishop Tutu's feet in the winter of 2008 had the opportunity to visit the White House. After touring the East Wing, I couldn't help but wonder if they had any real sense of the significance of the place or its current residents.

Just when I doubted that they did, one of the boys casually, but firmly, announced that he wanted to "live here one day." His nearest classmate, without missing a beat, cried out in the same voice that had once proclaimed his passionate desire to become Batman, "Me too!"

Perhaps Bishop Tutu's earlier words had sunk in after all. At that moment I remembered what I had always known. Our job as adults is to plant seeds. With the right amount of nurture, cultivation and positive examples, we can influence -- or if we're really lucky, become -- our children's heroes.

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