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In today's literature a "hero" is a typical person going through an atypical experience who also inspires the audience with the struggle to come out victorious.
John Cotton is a hero because
a) He was a gifted leader and became the natural leader of the Bedwetters, who are in fact oddballs and misfits.
b) They went through extraordinary circumstances in defense of what they held dear, and it was John Cotton who acted as their mentor and coach through it all
c) You (as a reader) feel that John Cotton becomes an anchor and a father figure almost to these kids who are his same age. He shows the pride he feels for his group, and that he is willing to defend and help them until the end.
d) as a typical hero, John Cotton comes to a tragic death at the end of the story, defending what he felt was correct. This is how he becomes the hero of the story.
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