Thursday, November 15, 2012

Epic Skills & A Huge Heart

Maniac Magee. Is he an ordinary kid? Or is he a superhero?
Hard to say, isn’t it, CFG?
The citizens of Two Mills aren’t sure what to make of Maniac Magee. Was he a myth? Or was he real? 
Look at all his amazing skills. He could run so fast. He single-handedly showed up the varsity football team. He ran faster than Mars Bar Thompson. He shattered John McNabb’s strikeout record by hitting everything the pitcher hurled at him – even a frog! He could entertain little kids, untie giant knots, and teach adults to read. How could one kid have so many amazing talents?
I always say characters need to have skills, something they’re good at, but Maniac Magee’s got more stupendous skills than my laundry pile has stinky socks.
Maybe Jerry Spinelli was playing with creating a living legend when he developed his main character, Jeffrey Lionel “Maniac” Magee.  Maniac reminds me of other larger-than-life figures from legends and folk tales, like Paul Bunyan, the mighty logger man, or John Henry, the powerful railroad worker who could lay track and hammer spikes faster than any machine.

We love stories about powerful people and astonishing athletes. It’s why we’re fascinated with the Olympics, and why we couldn’t stop talking about Michael Phelps and all his medals.  Stick a super athlete in tights, a cape, and a mask, and presto! A superhero is born. In recent years, middle school-ers have made a living legend out of Chuck Norris.
Was it his mad athletic skills that let Maniac Magee really make a difference?
What people noticed most about Maniac Magee was how he treated others. Maniac was kind. Not because he was trying to be, the way that you and I sometimes try to be kind when we don’t feel like it. Maniac Magee didn’t just have nice manners. He saw people differently.
He saw them without judgments, stereotypes, or labels. While the city of Two Mills saw skin color as a reason to separate people, Maniac Magee saw other people as he saw himself – as human. Two Mills had segregated itself completely, with a white side of town and a black side of town. Both sides viewed each other with distrust, fear, and hatred (I’m thinking of Mr. McNabb). Black and white, East End and West End, had defined themselves as different from each other, separate, Other-Than-Me.  Not Like Us. Not Like Me.
Skin color wasn’t the only thing Maniac could see through. He wasn’t tricked by age or illiteracy (think Grayson) or by reputation (Finsterwald). Here’s the amazing thing – he even saw his own common humanity in people who saw him as an enemy and treated him badly (think Mars Bar, and McNabb).
The Two Mills view said, “You are separate from me.” Maniac Magee’s view said, “You’re a part of me.”
If you are a part of me, then what happens to you happens to me. What hurts you hurts me, and what makes you happy makes me glad, too. When we see clearly, and we recognize that we are all a part of each other, it’s easier to be kind to others, and to want to help where you can.

The English poet John Donne taught this powerfully in this poem, written somewhere around 1624. In his day, when someone died, the church bells in town would ring, and everyone would look up from their plowing or their sewing and wonder, “For whom is this bell tolling (ringing)?” In other words, they’d wonder, “Who died?”  John Donne says, “Don’t ask for whom the bell rings. It’s ringing for you and for me, because we are all a part of each other, and when someone dies it hurts us all. None of us is an island, alone and separate from others. We’re all part of mankind, which is like a continent. If a little piece of it (a clod of dirt) is lost, that’s just as much of a loss as if a whole peninsula (promontory) washed away. (Florida is a peninsula or promontory; it’s a large body of land jutting out into the water.) There’s no rank between us. If your farm (manor) washed away from Europe, you’d feel it, just like you would if your friend’s farm washed away. Clod, promontory, or manor = poor person, rich person, or friend. Mankind = the continent. We’re a part of each other.” These might seem like complicated comparisons, but see what you think of John Donne’s poem:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thy friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee. 
~ John Donne
I am involved in mankind.
Maniac Magee certainly was, wasn’t he? And that made an enormous difference to Two Mills, and to all the people who came to know him. That was his real superpower. Seeing, not running or batting or untangling knots. And I find that comforting. Because I will never be a great athlete, nor a superhero (you DON’T want to see me in tights). I can’t untangle the mess in my laundry pile, much less untie huge knots. But maybe I can learn to see others the way Maniac Magee did, and maybe you can, too.
And maybe we can write stories like this, about important ideas that matter. Our tales of legends and heroes and superpowers can be about more than awesome roundhouse kicks. They can be about kindness, friendship, forgiveness, and healing. Our superheroes, like Maniac, can have superskills and megamuscles, but they can also have clear-seeing eyes and humongous hearts that care.
Kindness matters in life and in books. And you and I, CFG, just like Maniac, live in a world in desperate need, not of speedy stinky sneakers, but of kind hearts and crystal clear eyes to see.
So, CFG, your writing prompts for Maniac Magee are:
1.       Describe a character with tons of stupendous skills. Give him or her a long list of amazing abilities. Make at least one of those abilities something pretty strange and random (like Maniac’s skills with untying knots).  What kinds of problems might your character be able to solve with their crazy skills? If you like, write a story or scene featuring your character.
2.       Invent a living legend, a superathlete from long ago that the people in your made-up world are still telling stories about. Write a scene or story where your living legend appears from out of the past and astonishes the people in the present with what he or she can do.
3.       Draw a huge picture of your larger than life character. What do they wear? What tools do they carry?
4.       Serious problems usually aren’t solved with muscles, but with caring. Think of a world in a trouble, in the grips of a serious problem, like hatred, or terror, or prejudice, or war.  What can a superhero do in such a situation? How can ordinary people become superheroes when they practice caring and kindness?  Write a story involving a superhero and a non-superhero who cares. What might they do to help heal this broken world if they worked as a team?
5.       Write a scene or a story about seeing, where seeing things as they truly are is the secret solution to the problem.
6.       Write a story or draw a comic where stinky socks and sneakers play an important role.
7.       Finally, because I can’t stop you, write a story or draw a comic featuring Chuck Norris. J