transparency: embracing your alter-ego

when I am transparent, it is impossible to see through me

America wants superheroes without alter-egos. We want Bruce Wayne to be as perfect as Batman and Peter Parker to be less of a coward around Mary Jane and we'd get angry if we knew how the Man of Steel used his x-ray vision when no one was watching.

I've been reading about David, the old guy from the Bible. When presented to us as children, we picked his life apart like a Behind the Music episode, with a narrative of “hey, he killed a giant, led people and then got into bad habits and ended up miserable.” Each lesson was carefully crafted to shelter us from the worst details and all the while add “application” in the form of regulations for an antiseptic life. Call it the Hundred Habits of Highly Suburbanized Church Kids.

We missed the raw humanity of the story. We missed the gritty narratives and the bigger themes of deeply flawed people whom God loves and protects whether they are heroic or hiding. It was the antithesis of Superman. David wasn't a man of steel. He was the poetic, scared, courageous shepherd kid, who often grew lonely but who loved a God that he could never fully comprehend.

I saw a woman lose it at the grocery store the other day. She picked up a pink box  and slammed it to the shelf. I can't remember the words exactly, but she said, “they're using cancer to sell cereal. I'm sick of it. Why can't they just have a celebrity?” And she started into a loud rant that quickly cleared the aisle and left her husband red-faced.

She stopped herself after knocking down a few of the boxes. I stared at Brenna and heard, “I'm sick of wearing pink and I'm tired of pretending. Cancer sucks.”

As I drove my cart off, she took off her hat and cried right there in the grocery store. Loud tears. Heaving sobs. Her husband held her and stroked her bald head.

We're flawed and broken and suffering in ways other people don't know. I can forget that cancer exists when I'm comparing prices in a grocery store where everyone acts proper and pretends to have it all together.

It is mid-November and people have asked me how it's going after the birth of our third child. Here's what I want to say, “I'm really tired. I don't get more than four or five hours of sleep. I love my daughter, but I get tense and angry when she's been crying for half an hour and then I feel ashamed of feeling angry, because we're supposed to savor these moments. I'm dropping the ball all the time at work. I'm disoriented. Days go by so quickly that I sometimes wake up not knowing the day of the week. I'm not burnt-out. I'm not depressed. I'm just trying to adjust to the changes of a newborn.”
So, instead, I say, “Oh, things are good. She's a great baby. She's so cute and she's already growing up so fast.” Because, well, that's the script that I'm supposed to say when I'm trying to be a superhero. (Incidentally, I would never actually be one due to the uniform. You can call them fitted pants, but I have an aversion to wearing tights)

*       *      *

“That's a nice movie that you created,” a student says to me, her voice filled with thick italics.

“What do you mean?” I ask her.

“I mean you have the most lines and you came up with the most ideas. It was your project.” she adds.
I feel exposed at this point. She's right. The plot line was from the students. It's the story of Moco Loco, a snot-shooting superhero who is forced to teach a group of students how to be superheroes. He begins with this tough-guy facade and he slowly moves toward authenticity; realizing first that it's not about making a difference and then understanding that it's not about fame and finally landing on the notion that superheroes don't fight for justice, but rather serve out of love.

It's the theme of my own journey. It's the idea that it's not about the highlight reel and it's not about the formulas and it's fire works rather than fireworks. It's the concept of old broken homes rather than mullet men and being known rather than being judged.

It hits me that the whole story line was my own. My students, perhaps unknowingly, were asking me to quit wearing the mask of recognition and power and perfection in the process of making this movie. It takes a band of seventh graders to get me to a place where I am okay with my alter-ego rather than my superhero costume.

I meet up with Quinn in order to co-write a fictional memoir about a superhero named Stunn Gunn. He's a thinking man's superhero, who has the power to stun people with a physical shock or, more often, with awkward silence. Neither of us states it outright, but we're thinking through our own story and the power we both share in using sarcasm to wound people.

“It's the dilemma that all superheroes experience. They can't be themselves when they have to take on this superhero identity, but they also have to wear a mask when they are in their alter-ego state. So, they save the world, but they become internally unrecognizable to themselves.”

“It doesn't help when there are comic book manufacturers trying to force them into a narrative that isn't their own. Then there are the movies that twist the story even more.” We might as well be talking about Freedom Writers or Dangerous Minds.

*       *       *

So, how do I pursue the alter-ego identity as a teacher? How can I take off the mask of power and prestige and having it all together and still lead a group of students? I think it begins with a humble explanation. I'm not suggesting that this works for everyone, but before I explain rules or procedures or engage in a conversation about the subject, I begin the school year with a short description of myself.

“You'll learn from me and I'll learn from you. I'll tell you things about myself – running a marathon and being a dad and why I ended up teaching. But I want you to know that I am flawed. I am human. I will say things that are hurtful to you. I will lose my temper every once in awhile. I will fail to listen. When I do, I want you to have the courage to speak up and I'll apologize.” The first time I give this speech, I expect anarchy to break lose. Instead, it is silent, but this time it's not awkward silence. It's solitude. It's shared space. It's respect.

*      *      *
So a few years after the Moco Loco debacle, I allow the students to do a fake documentary on superheroes in training. This time, I step back. I allow for the fart jokes at first and then watch as it turns toward sophistication. A group of fifteen students gather after school and create the scripts, design props and shoot the film. I am a secondary character who has only two or three lines. It is their story.
The main theme that emerges is the concept that they will serve the community out of their superpowers, but that their superpowers derive from their weaknesses. Every superhero has a tragic event and the true power is in the redemption that occurs.

Sometimes it takes fiction to analyze reality and that is exactly what happens. Students voluntarily share stories of their own tragedy and for a few weeks, the I-have-it-together adolescent mask is off. After we film our last scene, a student asks me, “Is this supposed to be an allegory for education?” He's a gifted kid who is a great thinker but poor student.

“I hadn't thought of it that way, but it could be.”

“See, because I was thinking that the power of education is that we can overcome our circumstances and get to a point where we can serve others. We can love the community out of ourselves. Great things start with humble beginnings.” Humble beginnings indeed.

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