In these uncertain times, with schools closed because of the novel coronavirus, kids at home may be feeling anxious about their place in the world. Here are some inspiring kids who demonstrated grit, courage and resilience, often amid some of the most challenging circumstances. Trailblazers, inventors and humanitarians, they would be great subjects to explore solo, in a home or school report, or a family book club.
In December 2019, even before the virus had escaped China, the 17-year-old Mercer Island High School/Bellevue College student created a live-time database (ncov2019.live) — which has more than 100 million visitors — of worldwide coronavirus cases. Schiffmann’s been programming since he was 7 years old. Past projects include a Mars weather website and one compiling protest information. “My favorite quote is by Steve Jobs,” Schiffmann told GeekWire. “ ‘Because the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.’ ”
The Little Rock Nine
The Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 ruling made segregation unconstitutional, yet when nine African American children walked up to Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas on Sept. 4, 1957, they were met by armed police.
It wasn’t until President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered a federal escort to protect them that they were able to start school on Sept. 25. The Little Rock Nine included Melba Pattillo Beals, Minnijean Brown-Trickey, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Thelma Mothershed-Wair, Terrence Roberts and Jefferson Thomas.
The photo of Eckford — outwardly calm and composed, in contrast with angry protesters — became a symbol of the civil rights movement. Green, the only senior, was the first Black graduate of Central High School in 1958. He told The Associated Press that his time at Central High was “like going to war every day.” He grew up to become assistant secretary of labor under President Jimmy Carter.
Blinded by an accident at age 3 in 1812, Braille nonetheless became an accomplished organist. At 10, he earned a scholarship for the National Institute for Blind Children in Paris. After seeing a demonstration of coded messages for the military made of dots on cardboard, he adapted his own system of tactile writing at 15 for the sightless, based on a six-dot code.
UNESCO universalized the Braille alphabet in 1950 and, in 2005, recognized it as a “vital language of communication, as legitimate as all the other languages in the world.” His remains are interred at the Pantheon in Paris, with the exception of his hands, which are in his birthplace of Coupvray, France.
At 15, desperate to slow climate change, Thunberg began by protesting the Swedish parliament. She skipped school (with her parents’ permission) to protest every Friday, creating Fridays for Future, a climate strike movement. By 2019, over a million students worldwide participated in multicity protests.
Her fiery speech at the 2019 U.N. climate summit in New York City — in which she asked world leaders, “How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood” — catapulted her to fame as an environmental champion. (She yachted to New York with her father over two weeks to avoid the high carbon cost of flying.) Thunberg has Asperger’s syndrome, which she has dubbed a “superpower.”
Masih was sold into “debt slavery” in Pakistan at 4 years old in 1987, working at a carpet factory where he made about 2 cents a day. He and other workers were regularly beaten.
Laws forbidding debt slavery were unenforced; when a labor activist told Masih that the factory had no legal hold on him, he escaped. He began speaking to carpet workers at meetings, inspiring 3,000 children to save themselves. In 1994, he visited Sweden to speak. Upon returning, at 12 years old, Masih was shot and killed. He was posthumously awarded the World’s Children’s Prize in 2000, and Congress created an award in his name — the Iqbal Masih Award for the Elimination of Child Labor.
From age 10, Doe was known around Freetown, a small village in Sierra Leone, for scavenging spare electronics and scrap for his inventions. His village was regularly hit with power outages. He taught himself to create batteries, even a radio station, from where he broadcast as DJ Focus.
At 16, he and his team won a high school innovation challenge: They built batteries and a generator for the community out of recycled materials. He became the youngest person ever in the Visiting Practitioner’s program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and gave a TEDxTeen talk at Harvard.
In 2014, Yousafzai became the youngest Nobel Prize laureate when she was 17 years old because of her efforts advocating for women’s education in Pakistan, which the Taliban had made illegal.
A Taliban gunman shot her in the forehead at 15, but she recovered and continued to speak out, including at the United Nations on her 16th birthday, saying, “The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions but nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.”
In 2013, she co-founded the Malala Fund with her father to promote women’s education internationally and published her first book, “I Am Malala,” in which she wrote, “We realize the importance of our voices only when they are silenced.”