Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Superpowers

Several years ago now (!) I spent a couple of years teaching the Confirmation catechism class at the Toronto Oratory's North Parish, St. Vincent de Paul. It was a blast, really, and I helped develop a meaningful curriculum that helped overcome a little problem they were having. (Most of the kids came from an Oratory-associated private Catholic school founded by a bunch of homeschooling parents so they more or less knew the stuff backwards. The other half came from a publicly funded "official" parochial school of the AD of Toronto and the kids had to be taught the entire business from the ground up. So the curriculum took the whole thing step by step from the catechism of St. Pius X. Don't know if they're still using it.)

One of the problems I had at first was discipline. Of course, the kids reacted to it the same way they would to a school class, which is to say, they worked at getting away with whatever they could. I remember one particularly amusing incident when three of the lead troublemakers were sitting together in the front row about four feet in front of me, talking and giggling together. I stopped talking for a moment to watch them at it while the rest of the class watched me watching them. After about a minute, they realised they were the centre of attention and stopped. I smiled and said, "What puzzles me is that you think that by putting your hand in front of your mouth I'm not going to notice that you're talking...

"Hello! I'm three feet away!"

This got a pretty big laugh.

It wasn't really a big problem and they knew that I liked them and actually had something interesting to say, so we mostly all got along pretty well. I was gratified once a couple of years after I had stopped teaching it when one of my former students told me he had given up a weekend trip because he knew he had to be in the Saturday afternoon class.

There was only one time when I had to speak privately to one kid in it who was consistently being disruptive. Monica was very bright and had a little cadre of followers whom she led in chatting and giggling during class. I cured this by taking her aside and giving her my superpowers speech.

"So, you've probably noticed that you're generally smarter than most of the other kids in your class in school, right?"

"Yeah..." smirking...

"And you probably find yourself ahead of some of your teachers once in a while, right?"

Looking a little worried now: "Well yeah, sometimes..."

"Have you ever read superhero comics?" No. "Well, I did when I was your age, and there is one thing that all superhero comics have in common. In every one of them, the hero has superpowers and at some point someone tells him that he has to make a decision whether to use his powers for good or for evil.

"Well, you, Monica, have a kind of superpower. You're really smart and the other kids can tell this. You also have an even stronger power that makes the other kids want to follow you and do what you say and do.

"So you have to decide whether you are going to use your powers for good or for evil. in this class we are doing something that will have an impact on these kids for the rest of their lives. You study algebra in school and have probably said that you can't think of where in real life you're going to use it, and you're right. I have never used algebra in my life. But this stuff is of cosmic significance, and this is going to be your last chance to get any formal instruction in it.

"In my class right now, 'the good' is being quiet and paying attention and handing in your assignments.

"Now, that is simple to say, but actually in reality pretty difficult to do, and it gets more difficult when the kid you're interested in following isn't doing it and is being distracting.

"So the decision you have to make is whether you are going to use those superpowers of yours to lead the kids to the good or the evil. Are you going to be my ally and help me get this information into their heads in the time we have? Or are you going to keep leading them into The Bad?"

I never heard another peep out of her posse for the rest of the year.

I first consciously realised I had superpowers when I took a job as a telemarketer, for one day, for a charity that raised money for liver disease research. I went to the orientation and they gave us the script and I took it home and memorised it. In the first hour, I tried a few calls and got nowhere. Then it dawned on me that this was a matter of making people do what I wanted. Suddenly, I knew exactly what to do and how to do it. I just turned on that thing I knew had been there all my life and started making them do what I wanted. By the end of the day, I'd brought in more money in direct payments (not pledges) than they'd ever had a newbie bring in.

It was just something to do with modulating my voice and knowing how to tell them what I knew they wanted to hear. To this day, I'm not entirely sure how to articulate what, exactly, I did, but it was a lesson I never forgot. And there have been more than a few tight moments that I've, frankly, been able to weasel out of trouble by using this latent gift for evil manipulation.

Many, many years later, I had an unusually frank conversation over drinks with a priest-friend about this, having noticed what he was doing and how. He was very, VERY popular in the diocese and knew how to use his good looks and charisma to get what he wanted. "It can be scary, can't it," I said, "knowing you can make people do what you want." After that, though we remained friends, he was more cautious what he said and did in front of me.

Mind powers. Once you know you've got them, it can be pretty frightening.

One of the reasons I've been enjoying Fringe is that I identify with the character of Peter Bishop. He was orphaned by circumstances at an early age, and being smart and needing to survive, developed his mind control powers to the point of being a professional and fairly successful conman. With the all-American boyish good looks of Joshua Jackson attached to his face, Peter Bishop's charm can sometimes be a little frightening. And though he is unquestionably the Good Guy in the series, there are some pretty dark conflicts going on most of the time that I think I understand. He had to be wooed over to the side of the angels, against the instincts created by his survival skills.

The writers handle this extremely well, depicting a man who is slowly won over but who retains a reserve about Doing Good, as though he has remained unconvinced that the moral path is ever going to be the most effective. The periods where Peter simply abandons the by-the-book methods and takes matters into his own hands, are probably the most interesting parts of the series. And the moments where he is shown brazenly lying to those he loves most, using their trust to his advantage without batting an eye, well, frankly, I melt.

...Ahem.

One of the disadvantages of being brought out of The World's madness and being shown The Real and how to live in it, is that we can't ever again deny that we know what we are doing. And those of us who have spent a long time over there, been formed and trained by it, have a job of work to avoid the temptation to go back, bit by little bit.

We live with the dark side.



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