The Year in Awesome People
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"Awesome" has become a dumb word. It's nobody's fault, really, but when people start calling their fast-food burgers "awesome" (as I recently heard someone say), it's pretty obvious it doesn't mean what it used to. If everything is awesome, as they say, then nothing is awesome.
Presenting this collection of remarkable people from 2011—individuals who saved lives or showed extreme bravery in the face of hatred—as "awesome" shouldn't cheapen their deeds, though. Every day, ordinary people behave in inspiring, selfless, inventive ways that make them worthy of our awe. The people we've included here are literally awesome, and I guarantee that every one of them is much more important than your burger.
Ten days after the 9/11 attacks, a white supremacist from Texas named Mark Stroman shot a Muslim named Rais Bhuiyan, then a gas station attendant, in the face. Bhuiyan survived, unlike two of Stroman's other victims, and Stroman was eventually captured, convicted, and put on death row. This year, instead of showing hate for his attacker, Bhuiyan petitioned to stop Stroman's execution, saying, "In Islam it says that saving one human life is the same as saving the entire mankind." Alas, despite Bhuiyan's protests, Stroman was put to death on July 20.
Photo via Brandon Thibodeaux and MSNBC
When Japan's devastating tsunami overtook his home while he was at work, 43-year-old Hideaki Akaiwa called his wife to make sure she was safe. When she didn't answer, Akaiwa did what any wildly heroic (and slightly insane) person would do: He put on scuba gear and dove into the tsunami waters to rescue her. After getting his wife to higher ground, Akaiwa waited in agony for four days to hear from his mother. When she didn't call or show up at any of the aid centers, he swam through the wreckage to find her, too. With his mother and wife safe, Akaiwa vowed to help more people, biking around his community and looking for any survivors who needed assistance. Superheroes do exist.
One might have expected Japanese people to go a little nuts in the wake of the nation's horrible tragedies in March of this year. With death and destruction everywhere, the nation could very easily have descended into disorderly madness. But while Mother Nature did a number on countless Japanese structures, she wasn't able to ruin Japanese society. In late August, five months after entire cities and thousands of citizens were lost to tsunami water, the Japanese police announced that nearly $80 million in cash and valuables found in the flotsam had been returned to them for safekeeping. It turns out that even people with nothing can keep their civility and dignity.
Faced with the kinds of budget cuts wreaking havoc on school districts around the country, California's Arcadia Unified School District was pondering layoffs when fifth-grade student Jocelyn Lam approached her teacher with an envelope of cash. Lam had earned the money—her life savings—doing chores, and she wanted to donate all $300 of it to her school to help mitigate teacher firings. "I really hope this $300 will help save the teachers that are about to be laid off," she wrote in a letter accompanying the money. While Lam's few hundred bucks didn't go very far, her thoughtfulness spurred a charity campaign that raised thousands.
In March, an older woman in Toronto, Ontario, began approaching bicyclists and handing them envelopes before ducking off without a word. Most of the bikers thought the lady had given them a restaurant flyer, but on closer inspection they found that it was something different entirely: money. "The gift included with this letter of appreciation is a small reward for your very courageous effort bringing cleaner air to Toronto," said a note enveloping the cash reward, which ranged from $5 to $10. Looks like someone got a head start on this month's GOOD microphilanthropy challenge.
After almost a decade of performances, LCD Soundsystem decided to break up this year following one final show at Madison Square Garden. When scalpers got wind of the last gig, however, they bought out all the good seats and jacked up the prices to astronomical rates. Rather than acquiesce to the schemers, LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy did some quick thinking and one-upped them: He immediately scheduled four more shows leading up to the MSG show, thus devaluing the scalpers' tickets considerably. "[D]on’t let the shitbags win," he later wrote in a message to his fans. All in all, it was an admirable way to go out.
It does get better, it that doesn't change the fact that it takes a lot of guts for gay teenagers to come out of the closet to their friends and family. So how much courage does it take to come out to one's whole school at once? That's what Kayla Kearney, a teenager from Santa Rosa, California, did this year at her school's annual assembly honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. "Facing this reality was the most challenging thing I've ever had to do in my entire life," Kearney said, "simply because I knew that for the rest of my life I was going to face a world that told me I was wrong." Dr. King would be proud.
When pitcher Gil Meche, 32, had to retire from the Kansas City Royals due to a chronic shoulder injury, he was still owed $12 million from his contract. Most people would probably have taken the money and laughed all the way into the easy life, but Meche is not most people. Instead of taking the millions he had coming to him, Meche declined the money, telling the Royals that he didn't want anything he didn't earn. "When I signed my contract, my main goal was to earn it," he told reporters of his decision. "Once I started to realize I wasn’t earning my money, I felt bad. I was making a crazy amount of money for not even pitching. Honestly, I didn’t feel like I deserved it." It was his last great curveball.
People like Ray Lewis should serve as a lesson to everyone who laughed at Occupy Wall Street as being a hobby of hippies and trustafarians. Lewis, a retired captain with the Philadelphia Police Department, showed up to OWS in full uniform with a sign reading "NYPD Don't Be Wall Street Mercenaries." When he was arrested, Lewis went quietly while his protesting comrades cheered him along. As soon as he was released from jail, Lewis tweeted that he was headed back to join the protests.
When a lesbian couple was voted homecoming king and queen at San Diego's Patrick Henry High School, conservatives from around the country soon inundated the girls' school with angry phone calls. But rather than kowtow to the detractors the way so many lawsuit-fearing educators do, San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Bill Kowba fought back, saying he wouldn't stand for the bigotry. "What is essentially disappointing is that adults who have contacted the school, many not even San Diego residents, are demonstrating such a lack of tolerance and such a negative role model for children with their hateful comments," he said in a press conference. Despite it all, the lesbian couple reportedly ended up having a great time at the homecoming dance.