“You can become bitter or you can recover,” Patti Pusey told me last Saturday.
If I were reading a slogan in the home improvement aisle at HomeGoods, I might dismiss the words as nice but undeserved. I’m coming from Patti, I’m listening carefully. Not only because the noise in the packed school hall in Halifax on Saturday attracted us. Patti always seems to get close to my face when we talk.
When Patta’s right hand presses against my shoulder, everything else fades into the background. The crowd gathered to celebrate selector Lewis Sumner’s retirement and even the autumn centerpieces were gone.
I’m Patta’s state representative, a “Dem” read by an outspoken voter who put a sign on another guy’s lawn last November. But I don’t feel cautious. Patti is a mother of seven, grandmother to many more, wife to Bill (who is recovering well from heart surgery), owner and operator of a bed and breakfast, and many other things besides, including a longtime town meeting moderator whose motto was “talk with respect.” and who had to ask Bill to leave during a heated argument.
With Patti’s gaze fixed on mine, I felt like a man under the wing of an angel.
“Hard things happen to all of us,” she emphasized. “You choose ‘How will you respond?'”
Patti and I compared interpretations of Luke 12:48: “For to whom much is given, much will be required of him; and to whom men have entrusted much, of him they will ask even more.”
These days, Luke’s book is at odds in my mind with The Book of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In 2019, I felt energized watching “Captain Marvel.” I wanted to be the pilot of Carole Danvers, whose transformation after discovering her unbridled strength was phantasmagorical to watch at the Latchis Theatre.
Stepping out onto the gray pavement of Brattleboro, I felt jolted out of my sleep. I was looking for any sign that Vermont was holding a magical alien device like the one in the movie. What was that, a “tesseract”?
And that’s just the problem. There is always some sort of serum or glowing orb that turns an ordinary person into a “superhero”.
Given this context, I had it with Marvel’s unofficial slogan, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
This is the wisdom that Uncle Ben passed on to young Peter Parker, an orphaned boy who became a legend after being bitten by a mutant spider. When Spiderman goes off track, neglecting or abusing his spider-like talents, Uncle Ben’s advice reminds him to help others.
For a while, Uncle Ben’s advice seemed warm and fuzzy, but it turned out to be just as superficial. In Spiderman, we idolize the kid who encounters “great power” and only then comes to grips with his sense of responsibility.
Not surprisingly given their lack of character development, these superheroes tend to struggle with a sense of direction. They rise to the occasion only when faced with a villain whose villainy is often paired with traits such as perseverance in the face of adversity, self-improvement, and long-term planning.
What do stories like this do to our collective sense of responsibility over time?
I don’t blame Uncle Ben for the meaning of his famous quote. Only, if I could write a Spiderman movie, reminders of Uncle Ben would manifest in every character. Every person, no matter how humble in their circumstances, would be reminded that they too have great power.
The thing I would do in a script would be a scene like the one that played out in my 11th grade theater class. I don’t remember a single bit of that class except for one day when I was sitting on the stage with the other students during recess. There was a loose piece of paper on the stage.
I don’t know why, but I picked it up and crumpled it. I squished it into a little ball and then threw it out on the floor. I watched as it rolled under the first row of seats.
Did I feel bad about littering? Did I feel bad because I didn’t take something?
I’m not sure. I had a lot of privileges in 11th grade. This scene takes place in the classroom of Andover, the wealthy boarding school I attended. Perhaps I was becoming a creature not because of the talents that brought me there, but because of privilege. Have I become someone too important to care who sweeps the floor? Maybe I was angry. Maybe for good reasons. Maybe something inside me was saying, “Why should I care?”
I don’t know. Everything would be different later. All I have now is the memory of looking at that leftover paper and giving up on it.
Ready to go back to class, I looked up.
As I did, I put on the eyes of my teacher, a 30-something “Uncle Ben” guy. He looked at me, and by his look I could see that he was watching me throw the paper on the floor.
That was all he had to say.
The film would build on scenes like this, watching children of all ages find their inner strength by taking responsibility for one small thing at a time. By the climax, the world would be a little more orderly and everyone would know that they are more important than they thought. We disappear with a dance number to “Vivir Mi Vida” by Marc Anthony.
It’s a movie I’d pay to see.
What about Spiderman himself? In my movie, he tries to help with his special powers, but he keeps jumping in the middle of things, sticking them.
This is the point in my film when Lewis Sumner plays another Uncle Ben.
Down and out, Spidey is walking around Halifax. And there he saw Lewis, who had taken a job as a school security guard in 1988 after selling his dairy herd.
It’s morning, and we watch from Peter Parker’s perspective as Lewis helps open the school for the day. Hearing the school bus pull up, Lewis walked to the curb like clockwork. One by one, we watch all the children come down. There is a pause and we see that another student is on board.
Lewis climbs in and says “Good morning” to the bus driver. The camera stays out as we wonder, “Why is the caretaker getting on the bus?”
A minute later, Lewis leaves, carrying young Brittany Pusey. He does so after unbuckling her parachute harness that parents Patti and Bill used to secure Britt to her seat on the bus. Brittany has limited motor skills due to cerebral palsy. She uses a wheelchair at home and a wheelchair in the classroom, but as Patti explained to all of us at Lewis’ party, the school didn’t have someone they wanted to take Brittany off the bus every day and bring her back at 3 p.m.
Then the real Lewis Sumner stepped forward to be there for Britt at the bus stop.
Classic Lewis Sumner. He had a lot of responsibility in the town of Halifax during his 50 years of service on the Board of Selectmen, but don’t put him on a “superhero” pedestal. The only flaw that gnawed at him was his choice to step forward and serve others besides himself, one day at a time. He had “Uncle Bens” to encourage him, of course—like the neighbor upstairs from City Hall who nominated Lewis for his first seat in 1965.
Our Spiderman in this movie would watch Lewis be there for Britt and know the true origin of power in the ability for any one of us, at any moment, to take control. Whether we own what we have or what we don’t have — as Patti said, you choose.