Mirette on the High Wire
By Emily Arnold McCully
Many traveling performers stay at Madame Gateaux's boarding house, but Mme.'s daughter Mirette is particularly taken with one guest--the quiet gentleman who can walk along the clothesline without falling off. Mirette implores the boarder to teach her his craft, not knowing that her instructor is the "Great Bellini" of high wire fame. After much practice the girl joins Bellini on the wire as he conquers his fear and demonstrates to all of Paris that he is still the best.
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
By Beth Calano
What should I do with I'm afraid? What if I need to do something that is dangerous? What if I want to do something that is dangerous? What if I want to show people that I can do scary things?
As children, we thought of these questions in some form. Essentially, we were thinking about bravery. The issue of bravery is of philosophical value because it speaks to how humans navigate situations that they will likely encounter in their lifetimes. In philosophy, bravery is located within the field of Ethics. Is there a good way, a better way to navigate the human experience? One explanation is that we cultivate certain virtues that will best enable us to deal with potentially tricky situations. Bravery is an example of such a virtue.
We tell children, "Be brave!" on their first day of school and at the doctor's office. However, children are likely to encounter other situations in which bravery is of central value. Bullying is an increasing problem for children of school age and is especially important because it is potentially dangerous. Moreover, simple peer pressure is an issue when children play in groups. Discussing bravery gives children a chance to explore how they reconcile fear and bravery in their own lives.
Mirette on the High Wire is a great book to explore fear and bravery. First, the definition of bravery is presented in different ways throughout the book. Mirette and Bellini perform dangerous and potentially scary acts by walking the high wire. Mirette has no fear of the wire, and Bellini does, even though he has done it many times. So, this questions whether bravery is the absense of fear or the over-coming of fear.
Also, especially in instances of bullying, the issue of common sense is present in bravery. There are instances in which being brave may actually be to walk away from scary things. In a child's world, this may be to resist a dare, or recognize one's limits. This is why is it important to ask the students if Mirette made a good decision by walking the wire. Is common sense an important component of bravery?
Also, I explained that bravery is located within virtue theory. Therefore, it is important to explore the virtue of bravery. The students should question what makes bravery valuable and see if they can differentiate between certain examples of bravery that they think are more noble than others. Children also tend to perceive bravery as something adults should have; they use is as it marker for maturation. By exploring the facets of fear and common sense within bravery, the children can explore why we think this is so. Do adults have less fear, or are they more experienced and smarter?
The philosophical issue of bravery can be explored even if there isn't time to read the entire book. Read the book up until the page where Bellini is pondering what he must do to face his fear and face Mirette. Then ask the students to draw their own ending of the story in which they believe Bellini and Mirette behave bravely. They can present their drawings and explain why their endings show bravery.
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
"She stepped onto the wire, and with the most intense pleasure, as she had always imagined it might be, she started to cross the sky."
"Bellini hesitated a long time. 'Because I am afraid,' he said at last."
Bravery as a Virtue
"'Once you have fear of the wire, it never leaves,' Bellini said."
The Perception of Fear
"By dawn he knew that if he didn't face his fear at least, he could not face Mirette."
The Perception of Bravery
"Now Bellini's fear was like a cloud casting its black shadow on all she had learned from him."