Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Star Wars And Superheroes

When I first started teaching, there were a lot of teachers who discouraged superhero play in preschool. There probably still are some, but for the most part, the pendulum seems to have swung back toward the idea that this sort of dramatic play is healthy for young children as long as it doesn't devolve into actual violence, which it rarely does. The arguments in favor of this sort of play are deep and various, but what swayed me was the whole "forbidden fruit" phenomenon and the memories of my own superhero play.

It's satisfying to me that most of today's superheroes are the same as the ones from my youth, like Batman, Spiderman, Green Lantern, and Ironman, characters from the DC and Marvel comic book worlds. These are characters I know even better than the kids because as thin as comic book characters can be, they're as rich as Anna Karenina compared to their movie variations. I enjoy sharing their origin stories or details from their backstories, and I've even been known to consult the remnants of my childhood comic book collection, mining them for fascinating tidbits for children who are deeply into, say, The Hulk or Wonder Woman.

A category of "superhero" that I know little about are those that come from the Star Wars movie franchise. I saw the original, like everyone did, back in high school and at least parts of a couple of the subsequent films, but as a young adult I found myself more drawn to other aspects of popular culture and I've never felt compelled to go back and fill in the gaps. Of course, relatively few of our preschoolers have actually seen the movies, but that doesn't stop them from pretending to be Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader, which means that we tend to rely on the few playmates whose parents have permitted them to view the movies as our primary source for important information like who are good guys and who are bad guys.

Whereas traditional superhero play requires lots of punching and action poses, Star Wars play revolves around light sabers, which means that I often position myself near the swinging stick action just to make sure I can step in should things get out of hand. The benefit is that I get to hear the conversation which is, by turns, comprised of accurate and what even I know is hilariously inaccurate information. I leave those sleeping dogs to lie, but I've sometimes felt compelled to interject my own two cents when one of our "experts" starts to push their lesser informed playmates around. I remember how it felt to be "on the outside" of important cultural trends and so I try to pick my moments to role model standing up for my right to play as I wish.

For instance, if an expert tells another child, "You can't be Chewbacca because he's a boy and you're a girl," I might say, "I'm going to be Princess Leia and pretend to be a girl." Indeed, I've even invented a few Star Wars characters of my own who I've trotted out when an expert becomes particularly domineering. My favorite of these is Darth Marcus. I want the kids to see that just because someone knows the movie script, it doesn't mean that everyone has to follow it. Sometimes the kids take my point, sometimes they stare at me blankly for a moment, then go on about their business.

The public schools have been closed for parent-teacher conferences this short week leading up to Thanksgiving, so, in keeping with our tradition, we've opened our doors to older siblings, many of whom are Woodland Park alumni. Lukas was one of the guys who loved to play Star Wars in preschool, but who had never seen the actual movies. When I saw him on Monday, however, it was clear that he has now seen them all and is perhaps one of the world's leading experts. Indeed, he informed me that he was preparing a "report" on Star Wars (not for school, just for fun) and was hoping that he could present it for his sister's class one day. When I said, "You can do it today if you want," he replied, "No, I'm not ready yet. I still have to do some more research. How about next Thursday?"

Later, his mom told me that he had been hiding out in his room preparing detailed notes for the presentation in tiny handwriting. She said he wasn't normally a big fan of writing, except, so far, in the case of Star Wars, one of his abiding passions. I can't say how proud I am of him.

As we chatted on the playground I reminded him of Darth Marcus. He had always been a Darth Marcus doubter, but now he was absolutely certain in his doubt. "There is no Darth Marcus, but," he added with a shrug, "you can always pretend to be anything you want to be." Exactly.

I said, "That report is going to be cool. I can't wait to learn more about Captain Kirk."

He looked at a point just over my right shoulder, lowering his eyebrows a bit as if thinking.

I feigned surprise, "What about Mister Spock? Dr. McCoy? Lieutenant Uhura? Not even Sulu?

He maintained his thoughtful gaze. I could tell he was wracking his brain, striving to figure out which esoteric tunnel into which I was delving.

I let him off the hook by saying, "Those are all pretty important characters in Star Trek."

That broke him out of it. His smile betrayed both humor and relief, "Oh, Star Trek is a different thing."

"I guess I got them mixed up."

He looked at me like only a benevolent expert can, "That's common."

I can't wait for the report. I might be inspired to do my own on the comic book superheroes.

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