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Mirette on the High Wire

by Emily Arnold McCully

Summary

Mirette on the High Wire offers an exploration of bravery in the face of fear.

Mirette Gateaux wants one of her mother’s boarders to teach her his craft: walking along a high wire. Little does she know, this boarder is actually the “Great Bellini,” one of the most famous high-wire walkers of the day. He reluctantly agrees to teach her, but in the end she teaches him to let go of his fear.

Read aloud video by Hearts and Heroes Read Aloud

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

What should I do when 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?

Children often think of these questions in some form. Essentially, they are 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.

Children are told to “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 absence of fear or the overcoming 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 it is important to ask the students if Mirette made a good decision by walking the wire. Is common sense an important component of bravery?

Also, 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 tend to perceive bravery as something adults should have; they use is as a marker for maturation. By exploring the facets of fear and common sense within bravery, children can explore why this is thought to be 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

Bravery

“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.”

  1. Do you think Mirette was brave when she walked the wire? Why or why not?
  2. Do you think she made the right choice by jumping on the wire? Explain why you think she did or did not make a good decision.
  3. Does that change whether or not you think Mirette was brave? Why or why not?
  4. Do you think she was afraid when she walked the wire? Why or why not?

Fear

“Bellini hesitated a long time. ‘Because I am afraid,’ he said at last.”

  1. Why do you think Bellini is afraid?
  2. Can you still be afraid to do something even if you’ve done it many times? Why or why not? If you do think this is possible, give an example of when this might be true. Ask others what they think of that example.
  3. Do you think Bellini faced his fear? Did he overcome his fear? Why or why not?
  4. Is there a difference between facing your fears and overcoming your fears? Give examples. Is one more brave than the other?

Bravery as a Virtue

“‘Once you have fear of the wire, it never leaves,’ Bellini said.”

  1. Do you think Bellini needed to face his fear and walk the wire? Why or why not?
  2. Was he brave to walk the wire in front of the town? Why or why not?
  3. If he hadn’t walked the wire in front of the town, could he still have been brave? Why or why not?
  4. Other than walking the wire at the end, were there times when Bellini was brave in the story?
  5. Is Bellini always brave when he walks the wire? (Does it make a difference whether he walks the wire in private or in front of a crowd?)

The Perception of Fear

“By dawn he knew that if he didn’t face his fear at least, he could not face Mirette.”

  1. Is there anything you are afraid to do in front of a group of people? Are you also afraid to do these things by yourself or in front of your friends?
  2. Has there been a time when you felt like Bellini– that you needed to face your fear in order to face somebody? Did you? Is it braver to face your fear or face somebody else? Explain your reasoning.
  3. Did Bellini face his fear for himself or for Mirette? Does it matter? Why or why not?
  4. Is there a difference between being brave for oneself and being brave for others? Is one better than the other?

The Perception of Bravery

“Now Bellini’s fear was like a cloud casting its black shadow on all she had learned from him.”

  1. Does knowing that Bellini is afraid change Mirette’s view of him? Does this make her think he is brave or not?
  2. If she didn’t know Bellini was brave, would this change whether or not Mirette thinks he is brave?
  3. Do you think firefighters are brave? Do you think they are heroes? Why or why not?
  4. What if a firefighter told you he/she is afraid every time they run into a burning building? Are they still brave? Are they still a hero? Why or why not?
  5. Is a firefighter’s bravery different from Bellini’s bravery? Why or why not? How?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Beth Calano. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.

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About the Prindle Institute

As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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