Cultivating Courage, Raising Heroes

Sara Mardini and her sister Yusra had a pact. If anything untoward should happen during their 2015 Mediterranean crossing from Turkey to Greece in an inflatable boat holding 20 Syrian refugees (but designed for six), they would only save themselves. They were, after all, elite swimmers and could probably manage it.

So, what happened when the boat began to sink? What changed their thinking from “Don’t save anyone. You can’t.” to “How do I save five people, how do I save these 10, how do I save them all? You have to do something…”

What was it in that moment that made Sara and Yusra, at 19 and 17, respectively, almost subconsciously decide that it was their job, their duty, their obligation to swim for three straight hours in stormy seas in order to not only save themselves, but also all of their fellow passengers?

Perhaps we should call it heroism. Perhaps we should call it courage. Either way, when the moment came, those two young women knew what they needed to do and they had the fortitude to do the right thing.

Don’t we wish we’d all be so brave? Don’t we like to think of ourselves as stepping up in those moments, grasping the opportunity, seizing the chance to be courageous, to help others, to do the right thing? And, what of our children? How do we teach them to do the same? How do we instill in them the knowledge that when the time comes to do what’s right, also comes the time to stand up and be a hero?

Variations on a Theme

As with every year at Inly School, an holistic, and often amorphous, theme wraps in and around and through the School’s curriculum. The 2016–17 theme — defying a single word summation — embraced the concepts and ideals of courage, of following your heart, of doing what’s right, of developing your own voice and your own understanding of what you value and will protect; really, the very essence of a hero’s toolkit.

It All Begins With a Song

And, while principles and ideals and values are at a hero’s core, as anyone who’s ever watched Wonder Woman, Batman or Moana knows, every hero also needs an anthem.

“The song is absolutely the lynchpin,” explains Donna Milani Luther, Head of Inly School. In partnership with Meri-Lee Mafera, Music Instructor at Inly, the song Here’s Where I Stand, from the 2003 movie Camp written and directed by Todd Graff, was chosen as last year’s thematic anthem.

Launched at the 2016 Winter Concert and with lyrics like:

Here’s where I stand,

Here’s who I am,

Love me, but don’t tell me who I

have to be…


Courage of love,

Will show us the way,

Unlock the power,

To stand up and say,

Here’s where I stand…

…the song worked as the perfect musical counterpoint to other activities throughout the year — engineered to engage, inspire, and mobilize the entire Inly community.

Everyday Heroes

“The month of February really galvanized the whole School,” says Julie Kelly-Detwiler, Assistant Head of School. Now in its second year, Fill the Truck Fridays, organized throughout the month of February, serve as a way for the entire Inly community to Stand Together to Make a Difference. What could be more heroic than the simple act of giving, be it shoes, CDs, birthday parties or jelly?


“I am a firm believer in people being everyday heroes,” says Lori Black, Inly parent (’26 and ’27) and community outreach committee member. “Fill the Truck Fridays provide an opportunity for our kids to appreciate the trickle-down effect of giving. It’s like a raindrop — it just keeps rippling out. It’s a chance for parents to be role models for their children and work to build the blocks of giving that will last a lifetime. And finally, it helps with the development of real empathy too — to take a minute to stand in someone else’s shoes.”

Interfaith Social Services, More Than Words, Souls4Soles, and Birthday Wishes were the charities sponsored last year. Inly parents and students also volunteered at Boston-based Cradles to Crayons.

“Our charities, heroes in their own communities, were overwhelmed by the donations, they were beyond grateful. We were so pleased we were able to come together to support their worthwhile missions and we look forward to doing more of the same in the future,” Lori adds. 

By creating, and widely distributing, a list of suggested random acts of kindness for the month (and beyond) this particular committee is determined to make everyday heroes of us all.

Perhaps enough of a hero to be worthy of on our own box…?

Boxes of Heroes

In order to really get to grips with the qualities and attributes heroes embody, exhibit and employ, all K–8 students undertook age-appropriate in-classroom work to develop their own hero box.

In Children’s House, students identified characteristics they found heroic and worked on developing hero statements. Lower Elementary students went a step further; both creating and refining a hero list, doing more research and, in summation, writing paragraphs explaining thematic highlights, while in Upper Elementary, students wrote a letter to the single person they selected as their hero explaining why they were chosen and outlining the particular heroic qualities they most appreciated, applauded and to which they related or aspired.

16-17_Hero Box_004

Operating on an even more in-depth level, the theme was tied into the entire curriculum for Middle School students. Through various works — more research, more writing, more thinking — they examined the ideas of “who am I, who am I in the world, what inspires me” and used the results of these examinations to create their own representative piece.

All hero boxes, whose subjects ranged from Bill Gates to Barack Obama, from Alicia Keys to Mom and Dad, were displayed at the all-school Learning Fair.

“This was a great project that every level could access,” notes Julie. “It made our students really think; who are the heroes in my life? How do the qualities of a hero apply to me? How do they apply to others around me?”

So, in our hero toolkit we now have an anthem, a truck full of giving, a box. What’s next? Oh yes, a cape.

Courageous Capes

“The hero capes were a great collaborative effort for our Upper Elementary students,” says Annemarie Whilton, Art Instructor at Inly. “The project required creativity, hard work and team work, and a serious exploration of what it means to be a hero.”

Working in groups of two or three, students chose a single quality they believed in, a single hero characteristic they thought important – important in themselves and in others. Kindness, courage, and peace, were among those highlighted.

Students then designed and produced hero capes to represent their chosen traits and brought them to life using the da Vinci Studio’s Green Screen Video Technology. “There was a lot of laughter and hamming it up while sharing and wearing and showing off their capes. Both educational and entertaining,” Annemarie admits.

Steadfast Shoes

For Inly Middle School students, another artistic endeavor provided the opportunity for self-reflection within the context of this year’s theme. What makes a hero if not a clear understanding of dearly held values, principles, ideals, beliefs? And so the ‘Here’s Where I Stand’ shoes were born.


Students undertook individual inner explorations to identify those ideals, beliefs and principles for which they stand or those they are prepared to defend in others. They took the large and abstract concept of ‘hero’ and turned it into something much more personal. Witness 7th grader Isabel Perez’s “Love is Love” shoe billboard and 13-year old Will Maxwell’s shoe “Garden of Diversity.”

“Overall, this was a generous theme. The beat of life. I wanted our students to spend some time thinking, really thinking about ‘what’s important to you’ and how to authentically express that in 3D,’ Annemarie concludes.

A Rhino named Inly

“Full immersion into these concepts helps our children make connections that are far wider than those made by just doing the active tasks at hand. They learn how to abstract from the immediate and apply their learnings to new and different areas of their lives. Their actions and reactions, of heart, hand and mind, are influenced and shaped and they begin to see these amorphous ideas and qualities in themselves,” Julie explains.


Take, for example, the group of four students who banded together to help save the critically endangered African White rhinoceros. After agreeing on their cause and mustering up their courage, these students appealed to their fellow classmates and the wider Inly community for financial contributions, which were to be donated to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Lucy Sullivan (‘21), Chase Tyrrell (’19), Lila Bednarski (’20) and Catherine Sheehan (’20) produced an informative video appeal, organized for spare change jars to be placed in Inly classrooms and presented their case to a school-wide assembly. Overall, the students raised $370 for WWF, enough to adopt a rhino — newly named, naturally, Inly.

A Real-Life Hero

And as for Sara, her heroism didn’t stop when she and her sister Yusra reached the Greek shores of Lesbos with the 18 other refugees they’d saved. As we found out during her Omran-Nelson Speaker Series presentation in April, 2017, “A Syrian Refugee’s Journey of Hope & Courage,” today she is a volunteer on that same island, actively saving refugee lives every day, bringing hope in times of terror and, more broadly, she has grown up into her role as a voice for refugees, a global advocate.

“I want to use my voice and my story as a way to help de-stigmatize what it means to be a refugee,” says Sara. “I think people often forget that refugees are human beings too, with families, with dreams, with lives that have been turned upside down. I’m a refugee who’s decided to be proud of who I am. I am speaking loud. Everyone can hear me.”

Donna concludes, “I want our children to understand that you don’t have to be old to be a hero. When you stand up for what you believe in, when you follow that compass inside of you that tells you what’s right, and you put action behind it, you can’t go wrong. It’s never too soon to have courage, to be a role model for someone, to follow your heart, to follow your convictions. That’s what we’ve been teaching our children this year. We’ve been making heroes.”

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