Sunday, January 03, 2010


This weekend we saw "Invictus", thus giving me my first 2010 poetry experience involving a movie. But what was also wild about this experience is that when Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) began reciting "Invictus", a poem by William Ernest Henley, Mom began reciting the poem out loud as well. Now, Mom is one of those who believes her age -- she turns 80 next month -- allows her to do things like talk out loud in movie theaters or in church, often to the embarassment of Moi-her-chauffeur. But I stilled my elbow at the movie theater -- I think she impressed a lot of people as she recited "Invictus" along with Mandela. How many of you poets could have done that, had you attended the movie?

Later, Mom would say that she remembered the poem from her high school days in the Philippines! Oh, would that California public schools still allowed for these kinds of resonant arts experiences for every child, and not just the few... I still remember myself as a third-grader vying to appear on radio by having memorized what felt-like a ten-page poem (drat it: I was beat by another kid who memorized what might have been a twenty-page poem -- of course I'm not embittered by the experience though I remember her ugly haircut to this day...but Anyhoo...)

But what was best about seeing "Invictus" was being able to introduce Nelson Mandela to Michael. As shown on the movie, Mandela was a person who (among other things) was in this tiny prison cell for 30 years, but he came out with a spirit large enough to deserve his election to lead South Africa. In other words, this was a person who was not felled by difficult circumstances, and what this means is that a person can be what the poem, which I replicate below, notes in its last two lines.

It is complicated to parent a teenager who comes to you with a history of suffering. But one thing we're adamant about is not having him take on the *victim-mentality* (not that he was really inclined to taking that one--an off-shoot of his own strength as a survivor). When something comes up that's really difficult, we simply tell him "No complaints!" and just do the job at hand, "No excuses!" (I'm not really being harsh on him -- we're mostly talking about algebra...)

But I can tell that the notion of a man jailed for 30 years and then coming out to head up a country where he was imprisoned....really moved Michael. Then, today, there was an article in the New York Times about Harold A. Fernandez, now a cardiac surgeon, who graduated magna cum laude from Princeton, AFTER he came to the U.S. illegally as a 13-year-old. A 13-year-old from Colombia who couldn't speak English, like Michael. Well. My son eagerly took that newspaper article to keep with him in his room....

Mandela and Fernandez -- these are the kind of stories I want my son to know. The kind of models I want him to have. So that he can look back at what he's suffered and know there's no reason nonetheless why he shouldn't be able to excel in life. Life may prove otherwise, but my job as a parent is to tell him as a child that he can still be what this poem is talking about:
by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

What a keeper of a poem, by the way. Invictus - Latin for Unconquered.

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