uperman. Martin Luther King. George Washington. Wonder Woman. Abraham Lincoln. Mother Teresa. Eleanor Roosevelt. Rambo. Joan of Arc. Malcolm X.

Nicole Tobias is silent, as if trying to remember someone who lived in her house once but long ago moved away.

"I don't think I have heroes," Tobias, a graduating senior at Washington's McKinley High School, says at last. "Maybe I should, but I don't."

She is not alone. More than two decades after the deaths of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, it has become a cliche to say we live in antiheroic times. Nelson Mandela's visit to the United States is one more reminder that we now find ourselves seeking inspiration in faraway places. The charismatic American presidents, the glistening war heroes, the magical, supreme figures who society agreed were somehow beyond taint have disappeared. We are jaded, we say, no longer expecting perfection from anyone, searching in fact for the dirt behind the glitter.

And often enough it is there. Pete Rose gambles on sports. American University President Richard Berendzen makes obscene phone calls. Four members of the Washington Capitals are accused of rape. Barney Frank befriends a prostitute. Gary Hart lies about his involvement with women. Lillian Hellman invents dramas for her much-praised memoirs. Again and again the tawdry reports emerge and the image is punctured. As the air rushes out, we experience those by-now-familiar sensations -- curiosity, titillation, disappointment and ultimately exhaustion. Again, we think. There goes another one.

With the arrest and trial of Mayor Marion Barry, this city has been reminded once more of the pain and anger that accompany the fall of a hero.

When Barry was arrested, Prince George's County high school teacher Jerome Deshields says, he watched his students at Forestville High School react as they have when others fell. "The response at first seems to be one of fear. It is this fear -- 'if you pull down my hero, what am I going to do now?' For those who had a slight dependence on him through their feelings, it's very frightening."

There are those who bridle at the very idea of Barry as an object of admiration, but for many he has long been a source of pride and inspiration. Defiant, strong, Barry was the warrior. There was magic there. Loyal believers still cling to him, the need for Barry and what he symbolizes so strong they will not let go.

"Mayor Barry is one of my favorites," says 14-year-old Alonzo Washington. The revelations about Barry, he says, have not disturbed him. "Everyone isn't perfect. Everyone makes big mistakes all the time. I just like him -- I just like him for being a black American mayor."

But for others, Barry's arrest is one more argument against having heroes.

"I was disappointed," Nicole Tobias says. "Somebody at our school had gotten killed -- Sammy Unger -- and at his memorial service Barry came and was holding up Sammy's jersey, and when he got arrested they showed that picture on television. I thought that was tacky."

With the decline of myth and the rise of social science, the age of heroes has faded into the era of role models, a more practical culture in which singers and actors and athletes are shipped into schools to deliver brief inspirational talks and then disappear once again into their limousines. They are famous, they are rich, and it is the fame and the riches that are supposed to spur children on, not some superhuman prowess or crusade or vision.

Ask adults about heroes today and the very word elicits a surprised smile and an extended struggle to come up with some name, any name. Although they want their children to have figures to look up to, for themselves the concept has become irrelevant. But behind their skepticism there is often a certainty that, like Nicole Tobias, they should believe -- if only they could -- and a nostalgia for the time when that was possible.

"I think you have to have heroes," says Sandra Plourd, a teacher at Columbia Park Elementary School. "We have so many negative things bombarding us, it's essential to have something positive."

To his fans Oliver North possesses a heroic gleam. Mikhail Gorbachev drew huge crowds and was dubbed a man capable of remaking the world. And every day the lines outside "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" are a scrabbling mass of excited kids desperate to sit in the dark and adore their favorite reptiles. The need to admire -- to idealize the distant idol -- remains as basic an urge as the small child's adoration of the parent.

So what can be done with that hunger?

Kneeling around a low table at the Capital Children's Museum, small children fold tissue paper into flowers and talk about their heroes.

"A hero," says one 6-year-old girl, "is someone who saves you -- saves you from something like if you spill some hot tea on yourself and you say, 'Help! Help!' your hero will come."

"Batman," says a boy. He has the tape of the movie, and he likes him, he says, " 'cause he can't die."

The classic definition of a hero requires something more than immortality or the ability to save a child from a hot drink. At a 1987 Smithsonian symposium called "The Superhero in America," historian Barbara Tuchman offered her interpretation of that tradition: "A hero is one who possesses a noble task and who performs it for the sake of his country or his fellow man or for humanity and, in doing that, becomes a larger figure."

For many people that definition still holds, at least in theory. Finding the person to whom it can be applied, however, is a different matter.

"I think in order to become a hero you have to have some sense of the danger you're facing, and then you decide, you make a conscious decision, to go ahead and face it," says arts activist Peggy Cooper Cafritz. "It was clear during the civil rights movement that Martin Luther King could be killed. It was clear that Muhammad Ali could have been sent to jail."

But now, she looks around and sees only one person who qualifies for that definition: Nelson Mandela.

"For a large segment of the black community, Jesse Jackson of all national people has that status because he seemed to go more against the grain -- going against the grain embodies more risk-taking than a Doug Wilder," she says. "But even Jesse Jackson doesn't come close to a Nelson Mandela, because in Mandela you not only have someone who has stood up for what he believes in, but he has made it really clear he's willing to risk his life. Not that a Jesse Jackson wouldn't be willing to do that, but there has been nothing about his life that demands that, and there is very little in our society that demands that kind of sacrifice."

Like any dream, each person's definition of a hero is shot through with memories, with expectations of what is possible, with childhood fantasies and adult disappointments. When they talk about heroes, people open small doors to reveal private visions of the world. A child says he likes Batman " 'cause he can't die," and you learn something about his fears. A woman says she never thought of having a hero -- heroes were for boys -- and you learn something about her thoughts on gender.

Wendy Frank listens to two boys talk about Superman and baseball players in her Wheaton Plaza store. "I don't think girls need those kinds of heroes," she says. "From a young age they teach boys they have to be the strong one -- you know, it's corny, but they're told they're going to have to earn the money, protect the family. So they have to have those strong people to look up to." Women, she thinks, look closer to home: "I think a lot of girls would say their mothers."

Oftentimes the vision is bleak. A.J. Grennon, a D.C. resident who works in an appliance shop on upper Georgia Avenue, sees little to admire around her. "The military is out for itself, politicians are corrupt, normal people are living paycheck to paycheck if they're lucky -- who the hell can find a hero?" she says, the words rolling out with the unstinting certainty of ideas expressed before. "When I was young, I looked up to people who were loners and did what they want. If you can make it on your own, you're set. I learned that early. I'm country down to the bone and that's all you hear in country songs, that loners win."

There are those, however, who do not share the general ambivalence. A middle-aged man who works in Northwest Washington does not hesitate to offer a name: "Minister Farrakhan," he says. "He's for the downtrodden. He's the only person I know who's trying to lift up the black race." He has admired Muslim leaders since the days of Elijah Muhammad, and although he was hurt by the split between Muhammad and Malcolm X in the '60s, in his mind he has reconciled the two men so that they can both retain their power for him.

Not to believe in someone, he says, is "sad -- you don't trust anybody. I try to teach my children that, but you can only teach so much and then they go on their own way."

And often enough, parents feel, those children gravitate toward figures who can only hurt them.

"A lot of people are going to need heroes. A lot of people who can't do these things for themselves need somebody good to imitate," says Allan Schwartz, a parent of grown children who works with A.J. Grennon. "But most of these people out on the streets, all they see are people selling dope. Those are their heroes."

Other figures are almost as troubling to parents. Years after historian Daniel Boorstin declared that celebrities are well known for being well known, the cult of celebrity continues to grow. Michael Jordan and Bart Simpson, Michael Jackson and the New Kids on the Block remain the heroes of schoolchildren. "The besetting sin of the age is impatience, and television panders to that sin, and so does journalism," says Roger Kennedy, director of the National Museum of American History. "Today we have the synthetic or instant hero, which is a characteristic of Hollywood and Washington, but the ebb and flow of celebrity is not heroism. Heroism today is heroic persistence. It's not a spasm of virtue. Any klutz can do the right thing once."

But heroic persistence is not what matters to many people, especially children. Angela Frizzell, who lives in Silver Spring, thinks frequently about the inadequacy of her children's heroes and is not surprised when her four blond boys call out their favorites: Rambo, Indiana Jones, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Eric Clapton (the 14-year-old likes oldies). "Children and people today look at football -- athletic people -- the rock singers, people who are in the bright lights," she says, "and they mimic them, they copy them."

Of course entertainers and invented characters have always commanded fascination -- Frizzell's husband, Gerald, remembers loving Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. "I like adventure movies and I always like the good guy," says Starr Karaveloas of Annapolis, just as her 5-year-old daughter likes the Ninja Turtles and the Little Mermaid. "I guess we never really thought of heroes as real-life people," she says. "It's an ideal thing, really."

But now, with what Peggy Cooper Cafritz calls the "undressing of our heroes," the cowboys and singers and baseball players strike some as hollow and dangerously untrustworthy.

"There's this one girl in my school, she's in love with all these singers and stuff," says Nicole Tobias. "I think she's in a fantasy world, and she needs to fall in love with the things around her."

In his own quiet way, Renard Wood has made a journey that mirrors one taken by his society. Long ago he abandoned heroes. Now, as a seventh-grader, he has a role model instead: Louis Farrakhan. "I go myself to all the times when he speaks," he says. "He's trying to stop the drugs, and he's talking to the black people about using the drugs, and what the drugs do to you." He likes that, and although his mother also admires Farrakhan, "I picked him out myself."

Years ago Wood followed another. "Superman," he says. "I really thought I would be able to fly with him. When I was young I thought that."

No more. Heroes and the hope for flight have faded. The Man of Steel has been replaced with someone who can offer more pragmatic guidance in the ways of the world.

But role models raise problems. They can fall just as easily as heroes, which Barry himself acknowledged recently when he said, "I may be a poor role model, but ... being a poor role model is not a crime." They can be as distant as any hero. And their pragmatism can leave a soul yearning for the poetry of heroes.

"Role models aren't going to do a damn bit of good if the kids leave that session with the role model and go back to their miserable, oppressed, undereducated life," says Robert Alexander, director of Living Stage, the community outreach branch of Arena Stage. "It can inspire you, but if there's no support system, after a while you're going to crash and get more bitter. Unless that role model is accessible it won't work -- if that role model's phone number isn't known to the whole school."

Historian Phyllis Rose, who writes about women's lives and most recently published a biography of dancer Josephine Baker, regrets the growing popularity of the term for other reasons: It offends her desire to be inspired without offering enough in return. "Hero is much more stately, dignified and perhaps even inspiring," she says. "Role model -- it's a small, puny sort of word. It doesn't have the grandeur."

But many have grown wary of grandeur and skeptical of any relationship that demands a vast distance between the admired and the admirer.

"I think people ought to respect each other, but I think verticality in relationships is not healthy and hero worship implies that," says Randall Robinson, executive director of TransAfrica. "That kind of adulation means self-denial -- when you have the kind of respect you must have to do well in life, then your relations with most people are essentially horizontal. I think also hero worship tends to blind you so you don't see well -- when problems arise, then the disillusionment is all the more devastating."

Robinson is certain that "the things you really need to know" are learned as children through "intimate contact," from parents, close family. There is also safety in choosing to admire those people close at hand -- a safety from surprises. It is among people we know personally that most of us both find our first heroes and discover they are not without limitations. To young children, a parent towers over everything, flawless and omnipotent. But slowly the infallible figure is replaced by something a little more realistic, a little smaller. "All of us remember that day as a child when a friend said, 'Your mommy and daddy do it,' " says Spencer Hammond, a former D.C. Schools psychologist and the new director of the Center for Educating African-American Males at Morgan State University. "First you said, 'My mommy and daddy? No way!' " But then finally one of them said, 'Where do you think you came from?' and you have to accept it. And then that purity is gone."

That naivete is about not just sex but all the truths of adult life. It is something that every child must lose in order to grow up, and one that biographer Rose believes a society should probably lose as well.

Rose says her biography of Josephine Baker was criticized because she presented the dancer as "promiscuous and irresponsible in some ways. Well, it's true she was, but you can't expect everyone to be perfect in order to be inspired by them. What's inspiring about her is her resilience, her idealism, her courage. I think, in fact, that this generation of people who are being written about now are more inspiring for being believable, for having feet of clay."

Discovering those frailties and reconciling herself to them, she says, is an essential part of her work, and over the years she has learned how to find heroism in that process. "You start out in love with the person in some way, and then comes the stage of disillusionment," she says, "and then comes the stage after that of reasoned acceptance and a love that's less blinded than the initial love."

It is a love that allows for flaws, a love that finds heroism in the known, familiar, imperfect world.