“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”
I am not sure how a child chooses their favorite superhero. It might be the person they can relate to the most or the one with the coolest powers. The one common factor is that superheroes are unattainable forms of humans. They portray that self-sacrifice with insane powers is success and that being average usually means being thrown in the role of the damsel in distress or the press photographer.
Many everyday heroes are super, but they are just human. Superheroes have powers and access to gadgets that overcome the villain just when you think all is lost.
I believe that this is why kids aspire to be them. In their moments of pretend play, they are the ones saving rather than having to be saved—with the added benefit of being able to fly, which of course would be awesome. They want to put themselves into a role where they can overcome any obstacle, no matter how dreadsome and crippling. They want to live in a role where they have a choice.
In one of my theater classes, I laid out a bunch of random material and cut out masks/crowns of newspaper. The afternoon group was coming, and I prayed that today would be a day where I would not need to break up so many fights (the morning has fewer kids and therefore significantly fewer fights).
The object of the day’s class was to pair up and create a scenario with their costumes. Other than fighting over the blue and pink material, no fists were thrown. Only superheroes and princesses could be found in this class—except for the one joker who decided to be an elderly woman. His impression was very good.
Most of the kids in my theater class are from a neighboring favela (a slum or, more correctly, a community). Many of them are considered to be “bad kids” in their schools and maybe even in their homes.
However, what people tend to forget, myself included, is that they really are just kids. They have lived through more obstacles at 6 than I have at 26. They have been forced to grow up before they have actually grown. They retaliate with aggression because for kids that is how they digest events they cannot process—events that don’t fit the description of what a superhero should do, or even fit within the realm of human dignity/respect.
Superheroes and princesses provide kids with opportunities to be the savior of someone else for once—even the joker, whose grandmother is his caretaker. Most importantly, many of these children have never been given a chance by adults who have labeled them as “bad”—adults who have forgotten that at some point in our lives all of us need a little help and understanding.
I don’t think of these kids as bad, stressful, loud, angry or aggressive; they are kind, creative, sensitive, helpful, when given the chance. They are kids who just want to be the superhero in their life, but the villains of society hold them back and tell them that they will never be good enough.
My biggest frustration in Brazil has been that I often think that I am failing these kids. I feel like I fail them on the days when the number of fights I have to break up are endless, my head is pounding, and I wonder what on earth I am doing.
But then there are days where the kids catapult from chairs with capes—identities hidden by newspaper masks—and the only fight is over who they are all going to save. On these days I am happy to be able to give them that time to just be a kid in their grown-up world.
They are my superheroes, with what they live through everyday. I keep going back to the classroom, not because I love separating fights, but because I believe these kids can really change the world in a positive way with their strength and resilience.
“You’re going to make a difference. A lot of times it won’t be huge, it won’t be visible even. But it will matter just the same.”
—Commissioner James Gordon
Claire Stewart is a Maryknoll lay missioner teaching art and theater to vulnerable children in São Paulo. She just completed her three-and-a-half-year term and has renewed for a second term with Maryknoll Lay Missioners.
Photos courtesy of Claire Stewart.