On Friday night, after my first week of exams and continued acclimatization to the hyperactive schedule of school life, I took a break to watch a movie at home with a good friend of mine. While searching through Netflix, we happened upon the title “That’s What I Am” and, egged on by a review of the coming-of-age flick that neither of us had ever heard of, decided to watch it on a whim. The film is set in Southern California in 1965 and tells the story of 12-year-old Andy Nichol, a student trapped in the typical middle school social hierarchy complete with the school bully and his cohorts, the cool-and-only-occasionally-cruel characters and their cliques (including Andy), and the outcasts. There are two stand-alones, however, who form the emotional backdrop to the story as a whole.
The first, Mr. Simon, is the mentor and teacher for most of Andy’s class. He wins a car in the beginning of the film by entering a competition in the local paper to write a framework for world peace in 25 words or less. He wins with only four, submitting the phrase “HUMAN DIGNITY + COMPASSION = PEACE.” He later gives the car away, claiming that it is “not his style.” He is kind, soft-spoken, and recognized by all to be a man who truly loves the kids he teaches, willing to reach out and support them in everything.
The second, Stanley, is a student in Andy’s class who has been mocked and teased for his entire life. Called “Big G” because of his flaming red hair (“G” stands for ginger), he’s easily a foot taller than the rest of his classmates, with “a head too big for his body, and ears too big for his head.” He’s the archetypal nerd, incredibly bright but disliked by everyone for his sense of otherness.
But Stanley exemplifies Mr. Simon’s call to peace. He’s a gentle giant, uninterested in fighting back against the kids who viciously beat and tease him; he knows any retaliation will only lead to more violence. He protects the other outcasts, standing strong for them even after one of the girls is attacked and beaten for spreading “cooties” to a more popular classmate. He quietly, without drawing any attention to himself, lives into a message of tolerance and peace that goes far beyond his years.
Stanley was convicting.
We have a culture that loves a good underdog story, but people still hate being the underdog. In reality, we only like the underdogs after they win. It’s only after someone’s rise to glory that we decide to cast in our lot with them, only after they’ve become one of the favored that we start to associate. In this, Stanley felt a little Christ-like, really, an underdog without a victory or a defining moment of triumph. Like Christ, he’s almost too humble to be real, too unrestrained to be human. He pursues peace, but he doesn’t force it on anyone. He simply asks people to take him and his friends for who and what they are.
Human dignity is a tricky subject. In a world full of indiscriminate death at the hands of viruses like Ebola and incredibly discriminatory death under ISIS, where nation fights nation as a matter of principle based on a violent past, we need to remember the idea of dignity. We need to remember the call to compassion. We need to pray. We need to recognize that, at a fundamental level, human beings are human beings. We’re motivated by rage, lust, greed, etc., but we’re motivated by a deep desire to belong. We crave a sense of connectivity. So if violence begets violence, so too does peace beget peace. So too does compassion create and sustain compassion. Like Stanley, like Christ, we must demand humility, but not from those around us. We must demand it from ourselves.
Lord, hear our prayer.
ABSL, Natural Sciences and Mathematics