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Katherine DeCrescenzo:
2014 Winner
CCC Queensview North

Katherine DeCrescenzo

Winning Essay

Where lies the difference between a hero and a legend? Where in man can be found the boldness of a legend, and what separates him from the selflessness of a hero? I believe the difference lies in perspective.

A legend, by definition, receives wide recognition for his deeds, and it doesn’t matter whether his aim is noble or if his only motivation is the personal benefit he will reap from those actions. The legends that walk history’s hallways are as varied an assortment of humanity as humanity has always been varied: people of virtue; of exceptional moral uprightness; people who inspired; people of twisted ambition; people of moral decay; people whose souls were black.

Ahh, but the hero! To be a hero, one must act selflessly. Risk, sacrifice, be it physical, emotional, mental, often done instinctually; outward signs of inner goodness, without any promise of recognition or reward: these are the marks of the hero.

And then there’s the rare hero who becomes legendary. A person whose deeds not only made them a hero in their time, but whose actions so inspire that they become heroes for all time: legends.

There’s a natural part of the human sprit that draws guidance, inspiration, lessons from heroes and legends. And, sometimes, there’s something in us that looks to the same source for a vicarious thrill. Simply put, a hero is an extraordinary individual; a person who has superlative qualities, or has performed superlative acts. When we hear of heroism, we are often left to question whether we would have had the ability to act the same way. When we measure the distance between the hero’s actions and what we would have done, we draw inspiration. For a hero to become legendary, he must prove himself more publicly. A legendary hero stamps history with a reputation that remains true, sometimes even exceeding itself. In mythology, these individuals tend to hold supernatural, even god–like abilities: super strength, unwavering courage, impeccable wit, or even immortality.

As already mentioned, a legend needn't be heroic; look no further than Al Capone or Jack the Ripper. Often tales of legend are somewhat (if not entirely) non–historical and exaggerated, but this is, interestingly, the nature of legends and the human spirit’s response to them: both grow.

One legend in American history who could be considered heroic is Thomas Jefferson. Many people have a tendency to see history as something that began the day they were born, and so judge people and situations from our past in ways that are arguably unfair. Granted, Jefferson was a man who held beliefs that today are rightly shunned, while in the context of his life and times were considered normal. He did, however, change our American and world history—undoubtedly for the better—and should be examined in his honest historical context. A common problem that plagues our examination of history's most radical heroes and legends is what some call Santa Clausification: the boiling down of their legacies until they’re not much more than simple, flattering stories that advance today's political and social aims. Prominent examples lie in the heroes of the civil rights movement—think Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. But our founding fathers, are no exception to this. These were complicated people, addressing tangled issues in turbulent times. They shouldn’t be boiled down to feel-good sound bites.

As Christopher Hitchens writes in his biography of the Virginian politician, "Thomas Jefferson, indeed, is one of the small handfuls of people to have his very name associated with a form of democracy…the idea that government arose from the people and was not a gift to them or an imposition upon them, was perhaps the most radical element in the Declaration," which, of course, he drafted. Furthermore, his dedication to this cause proved exemplary even amongst founding fathers. He felt that there was an unquestionable need to ensure that this new country "was to be truly a change of system and not a change of master," as Hitchens continues. Thanks to the pressure of Anti–Federalists, we have the Bill of Rights. Jefferson was a man who did not stick to party lines, as new and revolutionary as the idea of parties was at the time, but stuck to his vision.

In the first year of the 19th century, he was inaugurated the nation's 3rd president, going on to say in his inaugural address, "Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all republicans. We are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it." Truly, these are the words of a hero who would become an American legend.

Jefferson was a necessary American hero, a hero the world needed to shine light on a corrupt totalitarian system and show there could be a power of the people. He placed complete faith in the minds and voices of the people; he relied on the ability of, and felt it was the right and duty of even the most common mind to make inspired decisions. He believed in the rights of men informing the power of the government and not the other way around.

If the primary difference between a legend and a hero is, as I stated early on, found in perspective, then it can further be argued that their status as said legend/hero is sometimes not in how they saw their story, but how they are seen in history. It seems, once a legend, always a legend. Negatively or positively marked in history. Once dubbed a legend, once stamped so indelibly in time, one isn’t often stripped of the label. To quote Christopher Nolan’s legendary trilogy about the famous fictional Arkham city hero, Batman, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

While I’m not sure I’d agree with sweeping implications of this quotation, I would acknowledge that we see this often in pop culture. Rappers like Tupac and Biggie Smalls lived fast, died young, and became legends. Artists, musicians—entertainers of all forms—leave a mark on us because they’re part of the public’s consciousness, made out to be heroes because they were born with remarkable gifts. Society places a very high value on being entertained, and we transfer that value to our entertainers. Men like O.J. Simpson start as cultural heroes, and as they live a life filled with fame’s rewards, we see them tank. A Heisman Trophy winning football star now vilified for horrific acts of violence.

A legend now, and the world watched him become the villain.

In contrast it seems the people who never get their names out there are the ones who use their extraordinary virtues in their ordinary lives—our police, our firefighters and other first–responders—who risk their lives daily to serve a public that is too-often oblivious to their efforts. These are the unsung heroes. While their heroically unprecedented response to the 9/11 attacks has conferred upon the group as a whole a legendary status, on 9/11 they were really just doing what they have always done: being heroes. It’s what they do.

These are the heroes that, above all others, deserve to be stamped in history. The men and women who sacrifice so much every day to ensure the safety of their fellow man; the teachers who dedicate themselves to passing on their knowledge to a new generation, who truly love to teach and want nothing more than to share the wisdom they’ve gained with today’s tomorrow; the construction workers who leave their houses at the crack of dawn to build the structures we all settle in, the rooms we’re in right now!; the men and women who keep us safe, who devote their lives to the public, who make our days as secure as they can be. These are the heroes whose names won’t be written in history’s book of legends, but they’re the heroes America needs. America is who and what she is largely because of them and their contributions throughout her history. These are the people deserving of honor, who sometimes die heroes, but always live lives worthy of honor, and are almost never given the recognition they deserve.

And yet they start again daily, devoted to the mission they believe in. These heroes make our country the greatest it can be.

Legends can be fun or they can be inspiring.

As for me, though, I thank God for the heroes.

Biography

My name is Katherine DeCrescenzo and I’m a 17 year old high school senior attending the alternative City-As School, where I transferred this September, and from which I will be graduating this June. I’ve lived in Long Island City, Queens my whole life with both my parents, my older and younger brothers, and older sister.

I previously attended Frank Sinatra School of the Arts where I majored in the Fine Arts, a four year program focusing on visual arts (painting, sculpting, digital photography, graphic design, etc.) While I love visual arts, and the arts in general, my real passion and aspirations focus on music. I hope to attend and graduate from a four year vocal performance program, and spend my life making and performing music. I’m very interested in Music Therapy as well, and hope to someday in the near future acquire a license and be able to spend a portion of my life helping others to heal, and communicate through such a powerful medium.

I want to travel the world, and experience as much as possible. One of my many dreams is to live in New Zealand. I also plan to take “extended vacations” in Namibia, Africa and Sapa, Vietnam. There I dream of starting my own charity, to travel to less fortunate parts of the world and bring their people clean water, proper medical care, and food. I believe that if everyone gave just a little more than they already do, the world could be a safer, more beautiful and peaceful place. After all, it’s easy to give $5 when you keep $10 for yourself. I want to make the world truly aware of what it is like to live in these places, and help people to be more empathetic, generous, and grateful for what we’re given in life. I hope to dedicate my life to preserving the arts, and using my talents and resources to helping all in need.

This is my second time winning the Christopher Santora scholarship, the first time in 2010 when in 8th grade. I’m so honored to have won twice, and am so thankful and inspired by Al, Maureen, and the entire Santora family’s dedication to keeping Christopher’s memory alive.

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