Back in late July, I wrote a blog entry called “Why Batman Is My Hero.” I had been thinking about the many themes present in Nolan’s Batman trilogy and so much of it connected to what was happening in my life this past summer.
And in the many weeks since that day, a thought kept popping into my mind. There was another fictional character from the world of comic books that had always inspired me. Professor Xavier, leader/mentor/father of the X-Men. Let me attempt to explain this somehow.
The past two years have given me many opportunities to mentor and “counsel” some of my students. In each instance, this started happening when each student was a senior in my school. And in almost every case, it was because I got to know them more as students in my Psychology classes. We spent a lot of time attempting to learn about ourselves, digging deeper into our actions, thoughts, memories, neuroses, and experiences. And for some of them, the subject matter really took on a personal meaning.
I keep in touch with this small but growing number of teenagers as they leave high school and enter the world of college or working life. Whether it is through Facebook, email, Twitter, Tumblr, text messages, phone calls, or actually meeting in person, we get to keep each other up to date on our lives. It has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever experienced, getting to see them grow, succeed, fail, brush the dust off from their palms and faces, and try again. I get to celebrate with them when they take big steps forward, and encourage them when they fall backwards from time to time. I want them to know that each “failure” is just a part of the learning process and that brutal honesty and a long-term perspective on their lives is of vital importance. I see them getting discouraged when they fall back into old, bad habits and I try to reassure them that small failures don’t necessarily mean that they are regressing. And as much as it is heartbreaking sometimes to see them upset at themselves in times like this, I know that I have to be vigilant in keeping a broader perspective on their lives. Because when they’re in the midst of their struggles, it’s really tough for them to see the finish line that supposedly exists somewhere up ahead.
And so, as I think about all of this, I keep remembering why the character of Charles Xavier inspired me so much as a kid. He was a man who believed in the potential that all of his students had. He believed that it was better to love sacrificially and unconditionally in order to fight against the tide of hate, bigotry, and evil. He respected his students enough to allow them to make their own choices, and he wisely gave them the freedom to discover who they were on their own terms, in their own time. But he knew enough about the ugly world outside to shelter his kids just enough so that they could be safe and free, but only for the purpose of creating mature and responsible members of a team whose mission it was to work for mutual respect and understanding in society.
As much as I loved the X-Men comics and the cartoon as a kid, it was really the more recent movies that solidified my love for the character of Professor X. He denied Logan’s request to be told everything about the past because he knew that the newest member of his team was not ready for the whole truth. He allowed Pyro to make his own choice and side with Magneto. He didn’t push Bobby to claim his full power as Iceman, knowing that when the time came, it would happen naturally (which was one of the only moments I loved in X-Men: Last Stand). He chose to prevent Jean from claiming her true power as the Phoenix because he feared that she was not ready for it. And when that backfired, he still tried to appeal to her with love rather than pushing back. And earlier, he helped an angry, bitter Eric Lensherr remember a beautiful memory that he had pushed into a dark corner of his mind. He constantly did all that he could to show others like him that they weren’t alone and that they didn’t need to be afraid anymore.
Side note: The fact that Professor Xavier was played by Patrick Steward in the movies was significant for two reasons. First, he was born to play the role. Second, he had previously played Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, who was another childhood, fictional hero of mine.
I keep having this crazy dream that I win the lottery and build my own school somewhere. This would be a place where each teacher would be fully vetted in terms of their honesty, love of people, empathy, and total dedication to the emotional, mental, and social health of each student. I would want it to be a place where the misfits, outcasts, bullied, and marginalized could feel safe, accepted, and empowered. As they walked into the entrance on their first day, students would look above the doorway and see a sign that said “You are not alone anymore.” And they would never be allowed to walk out that doorway again as a symbolic gesture.
When alumni fell on hard times, they could always come back to take refuge at the school until they got back on their feet. Or they could choose to stay long-term if they found a meaningful way to pitch in. Everyone at the school would be involved in a variety of projects that contributed to the welfare of their fellow students and teachers, and to the community around us. But ultimately, the goal would be for each student to leave and plant roots in some other part of the world that needed them.
This is one of the reasons why I got so choked up at the end of “The Dark Knight Rises” when (spoiler alert) Wayne Manor became a safe haven for orphans and at-risk youth. It had basically become Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. (end spoilers) It’s a dream that cannot be realized in my own life, at least not in the way it happened in the comics and movies. But I feel like I’ve been creating a figurative place like this in my relationships with these young adults. It’s a place that exists only in the space between us at any given moment. And I think that’s ok by me.
But I really wish I could actually go there sometimes. And I’d call it “Kim’s School for Misfits.”