One time, about 1989, my fifth grade teacher’s mom got “the sugars, “ which is another way of saying “diabetic seizures,” and she had to take a month off school to travel home to take care of things. Long-term subs were hard to get so they hired the father of one of my fellow students, Mr. Ocwat, to take her place. I don’t recall why they chose a man with zero teaching experience who had been laid off from his job at the rendering plant, but I think because he had some military experience they figured he could handle a room full of kids. Because that made a lot of sense.
So. Anyway. Three days in, he got tired of teaching the traditional curriculum and decided to teach what he called, “Ocwat Life Lessons,” which included things like using pennies to whittle sticks into spears, beer can archery, auto part dissection, and one time he got the local grocer to give us a pile of too-old-to-sell cantaloupes so we could play what he called, “a real man’s dodge ball.”
So that was fun.
On a rainy Tuesday, after he skipped the pledge of allegiance to karaoke the pants off Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire, Mr. Ocwat rolled in the TV cart and explained to us that we would learn about ancient Rome by experiencing the greatest film that was ever made. A movie, “So true in heart, even Jesus would weep his own blood upon the cross thinking of this man’s journey.”
The movie was Stanley Kubrick’s 1960, Spartacus.
Now, I don’t know if you have seen this movie, or maybe you saw one of the remakes, or the televison show, or the video game, or some clips on Youtube, so I’m going to give you the recap (*spoiler alert ahead*):
Dude is born a slave and gets sold to a gladiator trainer.
Lots of blood and death.
Dude gets good at gladiatoring and killing people and turns on trainer.
More blood and death.
Dude frees slaves.
Not so much blood for a while.
Dude and slaves run.
Big blood and death.
In general, gladiator movies are wildly inappropriate to show to classroom of fifth graders, but I’ll admit there is something to be said for the learning curve. I would tell you it’s a hero’s story of survival, but the hero ends up dead. So yeah. Not so great on the survival front.
There is a famous scene at the end when Kurt Douglas has to reveal his identity and essentially volunteer to get his white butt killed, so he regretfully steps forward and is all, “I am Spartacus” and then one by one all the slaves stand up in their dirty chains and say “I am Spartacus.” “No, I AM SPARTICUS!” “No dude, I am Spartacus!” and it goes on an on until all of them all join in. It’s VERY emotional. And even as a 10-year-old, I totally cried at this moving gesture of loyalty. Oh my lord, did I cry an ugly thing. That movie may have been the first time I cried at a movie for something other than a dog dying or a horse getting swallowed by mud (HOLY CRAP WAS THAT MOVIE TRAUMATIZING). Anyway. I have a point here. Thing is, Spartacus, the movie, starts with scene after scene of gruesome violence and death for sport, and it ends in violence and death for kindness. The contrast is staggering. There is a very clear moral divide between the good people and the bad people and that divide is what drives the story. It’s probably what drives most stories, but I digress.
My 10-year-old takeaway on that movie was this: Only bad people enjoy watching others in pain and struggling; only good people do not enjoy seeing others in pain and will always, always, defend those when they are most vulnerable.
Ever since that movie, I have assumed I was a good person. I would never expect another person to suffer for my entertainment and I would look down on those who did not know better. Even as a child, I watched the gladiator arena spectators and wondered who in their right mind would find entertainment in watching another human being torn apart? Who are these idiots? Why would people seek this out? Who would ever volunteer to be a participating audience member to something so merciless, painful and mortifying?
Who are these people?
Fast-forward 26 years to today. This afternoon. After just now watching Monica Lewinsky’s Ted talk and I realize the horrifying truth: I am these people.
Look, Monica Lewinsky is many things, and I don’t pretend to know all of them, but I do know that she is arguably the first person to have her life ruined by the internet.
And I contributed to that.
Back in 1998, when she was all over the news, I spectated with everyone else. I made fun of her. I made fun of her dress. I blamed her for giving interns a bad name. I scorned her for capitalizing on her infamous name by writing a book and becoming a spokesperson. I don’t think I ever blamed her for what my then-roommate Lena called, “Bringing the whole damn country down. That b*itch should to be tried for treason!” but I didn’t vocally disagree with Lena either.
Deep down I think I always felt a certain kinship for Monica Lewinsky. As someone around the same age, and as a fellow member of Team Chubby Girl, and as someone who had skeletons in her closet from a too-early age, I felt something for her. Also, she had really good hair. Even with that, I felt sorry for her, but not sorry enough to back off. Watching that woman being humiliated was a blood sport, and back then, I enjoyed every minute of it.
Knowing what I now know about humanity, it is wonder – no, a miracle – that she survived.
If you have not watched Monica’s Ted Talk, I would encourage you to schedule 20 minutes this week to do so. If you can watch it with a young person, even better. I don’t care where you stand on the political spectrum, but if you are anything like me, you’ll find yourself at least a little bit humbled. It is funny that her speech is self-refrencially titled The Price of Shame, and here I am the one who is feeling shameful.
I made lots of notes from her talk, but one of the most noticeable is the concept of Upstanders – this is a new term in my vocabulary – people who are the first to demonstrate empathy with those in their moment of humiliation, however unsympathetic the case might be.
And perhaps that is the issue there; sympathy verses empathy. If shame cannot survive empathy, then certainly empathy is what we need to make most. I know you guys come here looking for some DIY-decorative-crafty thing with glue guns, and that’s usually what I’m doing, but sometimes, like today, I need to work on making empathy. I need to work on making compassion. I set up this blog hoping it would be a learning center for woman like me who love to create and share over the internet, but, if there is one thing you ever learn how to make on this site, I hope it will be what I learned today. I hope it will be something made by Monica.