Evil

Nothing says "evil" like a fluffy white cat.

Yesterday, I saw SPECTRE, the latest installment in the half-century old series of films about superspy James Bond. Overall, it was an enjoyable film, with some great action set-pieces, an encounter with the first age-appropriate Bond woman (she's no girl), and, as usual, a Byzantine plot that it's best not to think too much about.

As in all three previous films starring Daniel Craig, this chapter was something of a reboot, introducing us to the latest incarnation of supervillain Blofeld. As with all supervillains, Blofeld is obsessed with a particular type of crime. In this case, it's one of the more boring evil obsessions: control of the internet. Ho hum. I've lost count of the number of suspense and action movies, including the last Bond film, Skyfall, that have rolled out this particular plot point. One gets the impression that the film industry has it in for the internet, and considering how many ticket sales have evaporated thanks to online streaming, whether legitimate or pirated, that's not terribly surprising. But seriously, Hollywood, we've been over this far too many times. It's high time your supervillains had an original evil thought.

This tired threat is not, however, the movie's greatest flaw. That lies in the evil-to-the-bone nature of the villain.

This is, of course, a feature of many villains of print and screen: the villain who's just plain bad to the bone, who has no redeeming qualities at all, no features that could lead any member of the audience to empathize in any way. Blofeld, we learn as he reminisces about his childhood and Bond puts two and two together, has always been evil, and we're never told why. He's like the Joker in that regard: far from being a cold-blooded killer, he's a psychopath who delights in torture and murder. His mission is to sow chaos throughout the world he inhabits. Whatever monetary reward he obtains is merely a byproduct of this quest to make the world a colder, darker place for everyone but him.

Not all supervillains are like this. Many comic book villains have origin stories that are every bit as detailed and sophisticated as the heroes who are their nemeses. The current FOX TV show Gotham is a series built around the origin stories of, it appears, every villain who will ever do battle with Batman, whose own origin story runs in parallel with theirs. Providing the reader or viewer with such a story--the brutality of the character's childhood, the experiences of cruelty and abuse that shaped his or her development into a character as complex as she or he is evil--makes that character far more real, more believable, even with all the comic book trappings of costume, customized weaponry, and vocal tics. 

Which brings me to the very real supervillains of the news cycle.

ISIS, Al-Qaida, the Lord's Resistance Army, the SS, Aryan Nations, the Westboro Baptist Church--a comprehensive list of organized evil-doers could fill books. Whether they are followers of a single evil mastermind or gatherings of like-minded sociopaths, they share a fanatical devotion to a cause with which many outside the organization sympathize. They commit acts of larceny, terror, kidnapping, rape, and murder. Their moral codes are narrow: any crime committed for the cause is justified, while any act of resistance to that cause merits brutal retaliation. They cannot be negotiated with. The only way to stop the madness is to lock them up or kill them.

As impossible as it may be to empathize with such organizations, there is no avoiding the fact that, like any fully-realized supervillain, their evil is rooted in an origin story. Whether it was the slaughter of their family and friends by NATO drones or being able to trace deprived childhoods to inequities in the social structure, there is trauma in all their back stories. Individuals who've grown up in trauma react differently from those who never had to fear for their lives as children.

This is, in case you haven't figured it out by now, where I leave the comic books behind and focus completely on the evil of the real world, setting aside levity for the remainder of the essay.

There is a subset of misbehaving children at my school that we call "high flyers." Their homes are theaters of neglect. Their parents may or may not be in the picture, but whoever is raising them has a parenting kit that lacks fundamental tools. There is often violence in the home. Alternatively, home may be the back seat of a car, or whichever couch they're able to sleep on for a few days until having to move to someone else's living room. During the school week, they eat both breakfast and lunch at school; on weekends, they may fill up on whatever junk food can be afforded on a parent's drug money.

Given the horrible home life so many of these children experience, it's a wonder that so few of them fit the high flyer label, which we apply to students whose records are full to bursting with trackers and referrals; who, if they had a punch card for the front office, would be earning bonuses every week. And as amazing it is that there are just a handful in every grade, those who make up that handful are hardcore. As an example, there are two students--one in fourth grade, the other in fifth--who've been to, at most, three music classes this year. The rest of the time, they're just channeled to alternative activities, because when they're present, their extreme misbehavior makes it impossible to conduct class.

I know the backstories of these children. They've got ample reasons to misbehave: dead parents, birth trauma, migrant lives that have had them moving from school to school. These factors don't excuse the behavior--as I said, many children at this school share similar stories and somehow manage to transcend them--but they do help me to understand why they act as they do, and to sympathize with the lost innocence playing out in the classroom.

The restorative justice model of school community-building tells us that children like this, who seem incapable of acting appropriately in a classroom setting and who, are a result, are suspended, if not expelled, or far more likely to continue these patterns into adulthood, to become repeat offenders, and to swap out the principal's office for jail and prison. Never internalizing the proper way to deal with conflict, they continue to act inappropriately as adults, their frustration spilling over into explosive interactions with neighbors, co-workers, romantic partners, employers, and anyone else who gets in the way. Behind the wheel, they endanger other drivers. If a gun is handy, they may take out their aggravation in even more lethal ways.

They may even understand that how they're acting is harmful to others, and regret what they have done, even try to make amends for past wrongdoing--and yet still be lacking in the skills necessary to control themselves when the demon of a violent childhood rears its ugly head. And if, as is often the case, the victim standing in the way is a child, then we have the makings of a cycle. The sins of the parents are visited upon the children for generations.

What happens to these children is evil. No matter how traumatized the abuser was in his or her own childhood, revisiting that trauma on the child of a new generation is evil. It cannot be sugar-coated or excused. Yes, the adults who commit these crimes need help more than punishment, but before that happens, the crimes must be stopped, the children sheltered from harm.

I don't know if the highest flyers in my school can be helped, or if they will just continue on their disruptive, explosive track through middle school and into as much high school as they can handle before they are finally passed off to the juvenile justice system. I hope there's a way to tame their demons, to safely ease them back into the school community; but I worry that it may be at the expense of those many other students who've either been blessed with more stable home lives or who, somehow, have miraculously acquired the coping skills to transcend their unstable homes. I can say that I'm not willing to sacrifice the education of the many to the trauma of the one or two who can't function in my classroom; but that doesn't mean I'm ready to give up on the few. Perhaps the answer lies in a high-flyer music class at each grade level, a time when the most difficult students have more individualized attention from me. If that's what it takes to draw these children back from the traumatic abyss, to help them figure out how to function in the circle of community, making music together with others and, in the process, learning to be with those others in beautiful, creative ways, then I'm up for it.

I just hope it's not too late.

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