For about three decades, students and faculty at Oak Park-River Forest High School have participated in the school's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. assembly, a gathering aimed at celebrating community diversity and promoting social justice.
As in years past, this iteration of the annual event, held Jan. 10 at the school, featured spoken word, music and dance demonstrations. But it also contained a new partnership with the longtime nonprofit and champion for community integration, the Oak Park Regional Housing Center. The organization sponsored the prize money for the assembly's oration contest, now in its 27th year.
For both institutions, the alliance was a natural.
“It is important for our students to understand the history of Oak Park and its role in promoting diversity and acceptance without our community and schools,” assembly sponsor and OPRF teacher Michael Byars said in a news release. "We want our students to know that this doesn’t happen by accident. It takes work, and the Oak Park Regional Housing Center has played an important part in those efforts.”
Third place in the oration contest belonged to Alexa Lisitza and Latroy Robinson for their joint spoken word piece "A Man's Evolution." Second place honors went to Demonet Oliphant for his contribution, titled "Just the Two of Us."
Taking first was junior Anthony Moaton, who earned a $200 prize sponsored by the Regional Housing Center. His oration, "Is There a Hero in Me?" is reprinted below in its entirety.
"A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles." — Christopher Reeve
There is a show called Dateline: What Would You Do, in which ordinary people are put into ethical dilemmas. They have to figure out whether or not they should interfere when they see a grown woman abusing a child or young teenagers attacking homeless people, etc. Now, none of the abuse is real, the abused and the abusers are played by actors, but the people do not know that. Sometimes, people do step in, and try to save the people they feel are being abused. However, many times, people just walk by or do nothing. And when they are later interviewed, and are asked why they did not do anything, the typical response is that it was not any of their business, or they thought someone else would step in, and they did not have to. This is the bystander effect, something that we have all seen, and have all participated in. Because of that bystander effect, I never would have thought in a million years that I could be a hero. However, as I was watching Dateline, I realized that that show was perfect for this speech. There were people who did not do anything, but there were also many people who got the courage to do something. People just like you and me, who might have been afraid of what might happen to them, but decided that something needed to be done. And when I realized that, I also realized that the definition of a hero is more complex than I had originally thought.
When I first saw the question for this contest, I had to think about who my heroes were. Three people immediately came to mind, Martin Luther King Jr., Josephine Baker, and Arthur Ashe.
Now, one of those people is a reverend, the other an entertainer, and another an athlete. How could all three of them fit into the same definition of a hero?
One of the definitions of hero is a person who shows great courage. Martin Luther King Jr. risked and lost his own life for others. He would not be daunted by bigots who wanted to stop him from achieving his dream of equality.
Josephine Baker was a famous African-American entertainer, who after being rejected by her home country, went to France, and was a very important part of the French Resistance of World War II, putting her life on the line to save them.
The hero I feel personally close to is Arthur Ashe. He was one of the most courageous Americans ever. If he was not fighting for civil rights in his own country, he was waging a war against apartheid in South Africa, or creating charities for HIVS/AIDS as he was dying from the disease himself.
What I realized was that the three of them had the courage that allowed them to do great things. I believe that everyone has that courage in them, and although we let fear stop us from being a hero, that does not mean that we do not have the capability of being one. We live in an individualistic culture, where although everyone butts into other people’s business, many of us fear the ramifications of getting involved in someone else’s problems. Then, there are those who decide that other people’s problems are simply not their concern, and the people with the problem dug the hole they are now in. I feel that I have been guilty of both excuses.
Even though I know I will never fight against apartheid, or help France against the Nazis, I know that I and my fellow students can be heroes, if we either stop living in fear of failure and embarrassment or if we stopped being so apathetic, and start having compassion.
Now, even though everyone has heard the cliché that a hero lies in you, I always found that hard to believe. I always thought that heroes were people who did extraordinary things, like the people I previously mentioned. How could I, a simple teenager, be a hero? I struggle with just getting my homework done. Sure, I volunteer at the food pantry every once in a while, but heroes do bigger things, right? Well, when I studied the definition of a hero as I prepared to write this speech, my thoughts changed. Being a hero does not mean you have to rescue people from burning buildings or fight to defend our country, although those people are admirable, no doubt. I believe that being a hero involves standing up for what is right, even when you may feel that you might not be accepted for the decision you made. That goes back to the dictionary definition I stated earlier. Having the courage to do the right thing makes a person a hero. When you see someone being bullied, and you step in because you know it is the right thing to do, and you may not realize it, but you are probably a hero in the eyes of that person you rescued. Being a hero does not have to happen on a big scale. Heroic actions can be the simplest of things, whether it is defending the kid you do not know from being harassed to always being there for a friend when they need your help.
So it all comes down to the question, what can you do to be a hero? Although it would be nice if we all lived in a perfect world where there was no bullying or alienation, and where everyone was friends with everyone, we live in the real world. Not only do I see people being bullied just for being themselves, but I also see people stand by and let it happen. I would know because I have been on both sides of the fence. Just recently, I was mocked for an outfit I wore, which resulted in a classmate calling me a slur. Although my teacher defended me, it would have been nice if someone else had stepped in and said that that was not cool, but I know that intervening like that is hard. I know that is the case in our school, as well as in the outside world. You see adults on reality television or even politics, who should be more mature and avoid mudslinging, and yet someone is always the victim, and nothing is done. We live in a world where just a simple outfit choice causes bullying, and yet no one really cares. We live in a world where people are attacked for their religion, their race, or their sexual orientation, and yet often, nothing is done. I wish for a world of peace and tolerance, and I refuse to accept that it is a naïve dream. I refuse to believe that I just have to stand by, resigned to the fact that no one cares. You do not have to either. Being a hero means having the courage, right? Stand up for something, whether it be taking a stand against corporate greed or the exploitation of children, or whether it be taking the time out to do something for someone who needs your help. Superman and Martin Luther King Jr. are great heroes, yes, but they are not the definition of heroes. They embody the definition of a hero, which we all can do. Do not be fooled into believing that heroes are born, and that you can never be one. A hero really does live in you; so do not be discouraged, do not be intimidated, do not be dismayed. Instead, you should do what Christopher Reeve said, persevere, and endure those obstacles. Be the hero you were meant to be. And maybe one day, we can live in that world of peace and tolerance. It doesn’t just have to be a dream.