How Real Heroes Can Change a Student’s Life


A Teacher and a preacher, he still had time

No this is not just a rhyme

From ice cream to boat rides, he was there

Yes that was my grandpa down to every last hair

—An excerpt from a poem I wrote to read at my grandpa’s funeral 1992

When my grandpa suddenly died of a massive heart attack at 57 years old, my world changed dramatically. I adored my grandpa and he adored me right back, his very first grandchild. Soon enough my sisters and cousins would be born, but he made me feel like the most special girl in the world. Then, the summer before sixth grade, my awkward phase displayed in its full glory, he was gone. The aftermath of his death was excruciating. Our family, pitifully composed of three sad little girls and one financially destitute and newly divorced mom, moved in with my grief stricken grandma.

Soon enough, school started, and we piled into a barely running car for the drive across town to our old school.  The trek was time consuming but necessary to try to keep some normalcy in our upside down lives. I wonder what my teachers saw?  Did they know how much chaos I lived in? Did they know I was trying to handle the overwhelming grief of the loss of my hero on my own, so I could be the strong one in our house of sadness?

That year, our teacher introduced a research project. We would write about person who changed the world. My grandfather changed my world, but there were no books written about him in the local library for me to check out. My mom suggested Clara Barton, since I was interested in nursing. I went to the library on a Saturday and I found all the books I could about Clara Barton. I remember checking out books meant for adults and feeling oh so grown up about it all. As I read through the books, I learned about Clara Barton’s work in starting the American Red Cross, and the way she was called the “Angel of the Battlefield” because her  desire to help wounded soldiers was greater than her fear of death.

I never forgot about Clara Barton and what I learned in my research about the way that she lived a life that was brave and different. There were no growth mindset posters adorning the walls of my early 90’s classroom nor commonplace vocabulary words like GRIT, but I learned about those things organically when my teacher gave me the opportunity to discover a new hero that year. I learned that there were other lives well lived that could impact my own, even if I’d never met them. I discovered elements of Clara Barton’s story that were also part of the life I hoped to live.

My hope in creating the growth mindset worksheets, “Their Story, My Story”, was to give kids a chance to see that well remembered, successful people also faced setbacks in their lives. I wanted them to see that despite their own circumstances, they could still live a life worth talking about. The people I included have faced the messy realities of life. They too wrestled with the grief of lost loved ones, they faced financial uncertainty, and they were strong enough to choose to keep going.

I hope you’ll be able to use these worksheets in your classroom too. I think you’ll love reading your students written responses and learning more about their personal stories. I hope this activity will allow your students to connect with a hero that could inspire them to change the world.   

May your teacher heart be full and happy,


1 thought on “How Real Heroes Can Change a Student’s Life”

  1. I love this, Sarah! Oh man just that picture of us with Grandpa made me want to cry. He was truly a hero. But I also love what you are teaching the kids with those worksheets! I still remember learning about Nelson Mandela in 5th grade from my teacher who had grown up in South Africa. Those lessons really stick!


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