In the wake of Lance Armstrong’s disillusioning admission of having used performance-enhancing drugs, there has been a lot of talk about the impact of role models on our kids, and about what happens when they let us down. For some kids, though, all this talk about role models is nonsense—too sentimental, too childish. I don’t need ‘role models,’ they’ll say, with just the right amount of disdain. I know what I’m doing. Maybe that’s part of the disconnect: in one sense, role models teach us more about being than doing. Doing is the stuff of heroes—an even harder sell among the too-cool-for-school set, especially once the great migration from Toys R Us to Game Stop and Best Buy takes place.

That’s too bad, because role models and heroes can fit very nicely into a grown-up’s world.  And when you still believe in them you can recognize them where others might not, by quiet acts so full of humanity and grace, they leave you spellbound. It’s what happened to me at a middle school cross country meet, of all places, where I watched two talented runners stop a few yards from the finish. There, in silent accord, they waited for the last of their teammates to catch up, as others rushed by. And when this slower boy, heavier and less practiced, and fighting for breath, finally approached them from behind, these two extraordinary young men linked their arms with his, making a point to cross that finish line as a trio. I don’t think you ever get too old for something like that.