An interviewer asked me the other day to list my childhood role models.
I named my father, but then I got stuck. I finally muttered something about not really having had role models, leaving the interviewer to conclude that I imagined myself so special that I didn't see the necessity of having anyone to look up to.
It wasn't so much that I couldn't think of other people whose skills or erudition or swagger I dreamed of emulating as it was the embarrassing triviality of my boyish dreams.
I mean, should I have told him about Uncle Ernest, whose amateur singing and guitar playing I admired? Or Odell Smith, whose wit made him such a success with the girls? Or Dolan Falconer, basketball star, raconteur and all-around rascal, who was the envy of so many of us younger boys?
I might have mentioned C. D. Gardner, the math teacher and bandmaster I worked so hard to please, or Earl Williams, the only teacher who ever talked to us about sex. But the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the very term "role model" is misleading, evidence of nothing so much as our ability to forget what mattered to us when we were children.
Our schools hold career days in the forlorn hope that 15 minutes with a successful lawyer or physician will persuade unambitious youngsters to study. We keep looking for ways to establish links between the people we admire and the children who we believe need the inspiration of their success. And we are forever chiding sports heroes for their nonathletic shortcomings, on the ground that their ethical and moral lapses will lead our children into similar inappropriate behavior. It's as though we believe that a kid who admires Dexter Manley's ability to harass NFL quarterbacks will also admire the illiteracy Manley tearfully admitted or the drug abuse that threatened his athletic career.
The interesting thing is that the adults who have such faith in role models seem to have no memory of their own childhoods. I know men who spent their adolescence mimicking Stan Musial's batting stance or Willie Mays's "basket" catches (but who never wanted to be like Musial or Mays -- in part because they knew nothing of these heroes except for their athletic ability), who earnestly believe that hauling Sugar Ray Leonard or Doug Williams in front of an elementary school class will make a difference in the lives of the children.
Talk to them, though, and you get a different picture. Ask them about their childhood role models, and they'll nearly always name a parent or other adult who spent time with them and paid attention to them and nudged them toward better behavior; what these fondly remembered adults did for a living, or how much they made at it, is largely irrelevant.
I don't mean to suggest that children shouldn't have heroes, or that they cannot benefit from exposure to people who have achieved professional success. What I am suggesting is that the benefit consists largely of how-to lessons: how to resist negative peer pressure, how to achieve in the face of economic difficulty, how to find adults who can help them to fulfill their career dreams. "Mentoring," as we now call it, can be invaluable. But it has little to do with "role modeling," as the term is commonly used.
In fact, confusion of the two notions may even be detrimental to real role modeling. To the extent that we insist that the role models we foist on our children be economically successful -- particularly the despairing children of the inner cities -- we undervalue the men and women in the neighborhood whose attitudes and behavior are so deserving of emulation.
Of course we should introduce the children to successful adults, especially those who grew up in circumstances similar to those in which the children now find themselves. They need to understand that poverty or race needn't be a bar to achievement.
But they also need to be exposed to the men and women who work to make the neighborhood a better place: by volunteering in the schools, working to get traffic lights at dangerous intersections, striving to rid the community of drug trafficking and spending time with the children. And they need to meet and talk with those adults who espouse and practice moral behavior.
Role modeling, as we tend to talk about it, is too much involved with money and professional status: what a person has accomplished. The role modeling that matters is involved with standards and behavior: what a person is. We'd do our children a favor if we learned the difference.