By David Hoffman
"Superman isn't brave. He's smart and handsome and even decent, but he's not brave. Superman's indestructible, and you can't be brave if you're indestructible."
These words of wisdom were uttered by the late, great George C. Scott in the movie Angus-an unfairly forgotten gem from 1995 that deals with the high school trials and tribulations of the title character, Angus, a self-professed "fat kid who's good at science and fair at football."
Due to Angus's size and ability to defend himself, he is frequently subjected to a form of bullying designed to humiliate him rather than harm him physically, such as running his underwear up the flagpole. The source of his angst in the movie revolves around the fact that he has been selected, after a rigged vote, to be the "king" of the Winter Ball, which obligates him to dance with the "queen"-Melissa, the most popular girl in school, and one he secretly has a crush on. Unbeknownst to both of them, Rick Sandford, Melissa's boyfriend, is planning to use the Winter Ball to trigger a prank that will embarrass Angus in front of the entire student body.
Besides addressing the problem of bullying, the movie also explores four key hypocrisies that confront not only high school students, but adults as well:
1). The Hypocrisy of Popularity: Angus is surprised to learn that, like himself, Melissa is not only self-conscious about being stared at, she is also mortified at the thought of tripping and falling when she makes her "official" entrance into the dance. He also discovers that her fear of losing her popularity has caused her to develop an eating disorder;
2). The Hypocrisy of Social Values: At the beginning of the movie, Angus laments how the "good guys" rarely win. Although most Americans profess to be "Christians," many do a shameful job of emulating the example of that gentle soul from Nazareth. Virtues like honesty, sharing, selflessness, peace, spirituality and compassion for others are incessantly perceived as weaknesses, while vices like mendacity, greed, selfishness, warmongering, materialism and the exploitation of others are often the keys to material and social success;
3). The Hypocrisy of Preconceptions: Angus's grandfather is engaged to marry a much younger woman. The quotation that opened this article is his response to Angus's remarks about the bravery of his grandfather for defying social preconceptions that view such relationships and marriages in a negative light.
And it does indeed seem that this preconception has it backward. America's entertainment based, corporate-controlled "news" media relentlessly inundate their readers and viewers with images of the rich and famous dating and marrying people several years their junior. And these same readers and viewers habitually nod and smile in obsequious acceptance as the same self-serving lie is uttered: "I would still love him/her even if he/she wasn't rich or famous."
Yet doesn't it seem more logical to assume that, if such a relationship has survived and flourished sans the allure of wealth and fame, that it might truly be based upon love, instead of crass opportunism?;
4). The Hypocrisy of Social Norms: Throughout the movie, Angus is working on a science experiment to refute the theory that a small, abnormal element forced into a larger, normal system will "either be rejected or destroyed." He eventually concludes that if the element is "brave" and "can hold out long enough" against the system's torment, the system's energy will eventually be depleted, forcing it to "change, adapt, mutate." And, as Angus says, when this happens it will prove his point: "There is no normal."
I watched Angus with the benefit of a law-school education and the experience of having taught criminal justice courses that examined the reasons why people tend to conform or deviate from established social norms, and this perhaps caused me to view it more analytically than others might. But it was my personal high school experiences that truly made the movie resonate with me.
Most sociologists agree that high school students experience the same conflicts and resentments between the "haves" and the "have-nots" that adult society experiences. But, as my high school years demonstrated, economic disparities were not the only factors in the formation of cliques. My school also had the "jocks" (student athletes who participated in popular sports like football and basketball); the "nerds" (bookish students focused on getting into the best universities through their scholastic achievements); the "hippies" (students involved in the drug culture, but with an egalitarian and utopian view of society); and the "druggies" (students whose existence revolved around "getting high.")
Then there were students, like myself, who didn't fit into any of these categories. I initially thought of myself as an "expendable," based upon the quotation from the movie Rambo, First Blood Part II: "It's like someone invites you to a party and you don't show up. It doesn't really matter."
But then I realized that I was never invited to any parties in the first place. So I thought about how, time and again, I would be sitting between two classmates enthusiastically discussing upcoming social events with each other as if I wasn't there, and this prompted me to create a different term to describe students like myself: The Invisibles.
The advantage of being an "Invisible" was I wasn't subjected to the expectations of success, the pressures of popularity, or the bullying that befell many of my classmates. The disadvantage was I developed an almost desperate need to "affirm" my existence to others.
This need for affirmation made it increasingly difficult to ascertain whether the principles and goals I was developing as an adolescent, and potentially carrying into adulthood, were built upon honest and cogent beliefs, or whether I was simply adopting principles and goals that I believed would make others notice and accept me.
Whatever my motivation, it certainly didn't work. A defining point in my young life came at the Senior Awards Ceremony. I had done well enough academically to be awarded a college scholarship, and, as I sat in the auditorium anxiously waiting for my name to be called, I noticed that whenever the names of students expected to receive scholarships were announced, they were greeted with congratulatory applause.
But when my name was announced, an audible and collective gasp of disbelief filled the room, along with a few shocked utterances. Now, had I been older and wiser, I would have taken this reaction as a compliment, because it indicated that I had accomplished something few believed I could do. Instead, I began to think that the whole scholarship thing had been a mistake, and that college wasn't meant for "Invisibles."
I enrolled in college nonetheless, but the gasp from that auditorium never left me. In fact, during my freshman year, when my advisor informed me that a local civic group had selected me to receive an additional five hundred dollar scholarship, I immediately began to recite a list of students who, in my mind, were more deserving of this award. In exasperation, he subsequently remarked, "I don't understand why you're arguing. This is supposed to be a good thing."
Needless to say, my initial foray into college ended when I dropped out during my second year.
A recent article in the Los Angeles Times by Susan Eva Porter contends that today's emphasis on bullying in America has blurred the lines between actual bullying and the normal realities of adolescence. She specifically argues that behaviors "such as social exclusion [and] persistent unfriendliness" should not be construed as bullying.
Although I grew up as an "Invisible," I agree with Porter's conclusion. Students should not be or feel compelled to socialize with other students simply because a happenstance of fate placed them in the same school at the same time. But this does not negate the fact that if exclusion and unfriendliness is persistent and intense enough, it may cause a person to reach "a point of no return." And therein lies the danger.
My law and teaching background often inspired me to watch "true crime" documentaries, a habit I engage in to this day. Two such documentaries-Frenemies and Stalked: Someone's Watching-frequently discuss cases of persons who have reached this "point of no return."
Some stories in Frenemies involve two young people who had developed a common bond and friendship after being ostracized or bullied by their classmates. Yet a combustible combination of jealousy and resentment, that ultimately led to violence, was eventually created when one overcame his/her negative childhood and/or adolescent experiences to build a successful life, while the other continued to be negatively influenced by these experiences.
Stalked often examines how simple acts of kindness towards a classmate or person who is being, or has been, ostracized, bullied or otherwise mistreated can sometimes be misconstrued as a display of affection, often resulting in years of torment, fear, and even death for those who had nothing but good intentions.
So curing the effects of bullying simply by befriending or behaving kindly towards those victimized by it is not always a viable option, and, in some cases, can even be dangerous.
Still, the best way to combat and overcome the effects of ostracism and bullying may indeed be a simple one. Whenever Angus would brood over what other people might think of him, his grandfather would say, "Screw um, Angus."
Simple, yes. But not easy, particularly for adolescents. It's not easy to have self-confidence and self-esteem when classmates bombard you with negative comments, and perhaps even physical assaults, on a regular basis. It's not easy to endure the loneliness when you look down a crowded hallway and realize you do not fit in. It's not easy to avoid the peer pressure and the desire to belong that can lead you down paths you might otherwise not have taken.
It takes a strong mind to withstand the torment of the system. But the underlying premise is sound: What ultimately matters is not what others think of you, but what you think of yourself.
Angus took his grandfather's advice. He went to the Winter Ball and danced with Melissa. Rick Sandford's prank backfired and got him suspended from school. And Angus "had his moment" when he got to walk Melissa home.
It took me a little longer to realize that, for far too long, I had been letting other people dictate to me how and what I was supposed to think about myself. I returned to college, and when my new advisor warned me about the difficult path I faced because I had been out of school for so long, I took her statement not as a fact, but as a challenge.
I not only completed college with two "High Scholastic Achievement" awards, I also went to law school, making the Deans list and graduating with honors, something that high school kid at the Senior Awards Ceremony decades ago had never even remotely envisioned.
This has taught me that the greatest gift humans have are their minds. Although we might not be able to control what other people say and/or do, we can control our reactions. In fact, when we do not control our reactions, we are, in essence, surrendering control of our minds to others and letting them dictate how and what we should think and feel, even about ourselves.
Perhaps, like Angus, when you become comfortable with who you are, and when the tormenters realize that there are things, like your mind and your self-esteem, that they cannot touch unless you let them, they may develop the same positive opinion of you that you have of yourself.
And if they don't, "Screw um."
David R. Hoffman
Legal Editor of Pravda.Ru
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