Big-Brained Superheroes Fight an Epic Battle
He comes back in the room, slaps his half-done homework onto the table in front of him, and puts his head down. It doesn’t take much Empathy to see that he’s feeling defeated, disenfranchised, downtrodden. So, what do we do? Do we reinforce his hurt and insecurities by criticizing him? Tell him to: Suck it up, kid, because learning how to multiply is way more important than whatever is going on in your brain right now?
Big-Brained Superheroes fight epic battles every single day. Some of the battles we all fight every now and then; some of them are fought relentlessly—without truce—by a precious few. Those Big-Brained Superheroes get dispatches, overt and covert, every single day telling them who they are and who they are not. Telling them what they are and are not capable of. And mostly, what they should and should not expect from a world that doesn’t always concern itself with tapping into their hidden strengths. Like the Avengers and like the X-men, they get it. It takes superhuman strength to fight for a world that doesn’t seem to fight so much for you.
Which is why sidekicks exist. Sidekicks may not have all the answers or know exactly what to say or do to defeat the villainy. We may even get distracted from time to time with our own battles. But, by default, we always come back to knowing who our priorities are. And no matter what, when we see a Big-Brained Superhero losing the battle, we know our job is to fight alongside—not against—him. So that when he raises his head, both victory and completed homework in hand, we can be there too. Right by his side. Helping show the world all the amazing things Big-Brained Superheroes, when we work together, can do.
A Tower of Teamwork Power
It’s no secret that without our superpowers The Big-Brained Superheroes Club would not exist today. Why does this matter? Because superpowers beget superpowers. For instance…
Yesterday, one of our beautiful Big-Brained Superheroes went from stagnation to meltdown when it came to getting her homework done. It was NOT GOING TO HAPPEN. And while we are officially on record as being homework-ambivalent ourselves, sometimes a superhero’s gotta do what a superhero’s gotta do. In steps a fellow young BBS with her healthy dose of Empathy, Leadership, and Teamwork—not to mention a small arsenal of peanut butter crackers. Less than an hour later: crisis averted, mission accomplished, Empowerment superpower activated. Go Team Big-Brained Superhero!
Big-Brained Superheroes vs. Negativity
Last week, The BBSC got the privilege of meeting two more big-brained superheroes. Women’s boxing Olympic hopeful Jen Hamann and her coach Tricia Turton of Arcaro Boxing Gym exercised their Kindness and Teamwork superpowers in coming to talk with us about boxing as it pertains to big-brained superhero-dom. A more perfect physical expression of the power of superpowers could not have been asked for. Jen and Tricia addressed so many of the issues our BBSes face on a daily basis, but there was one notion in particular that caught our attention: slipping negativity.
As Jen demonstrated how she slips punches in the ring, she proposed that we big-brained superheroes visualize ourselves slipping the negative words and expressions that tend to come at us (young ones, especially!) in direct and indirect ways every day. We found this concept incredibly powerful. In superpower lingo, we might even call it “Empowerment”ful (ugh).
It seems paradoxical to us, but when we seriously considered which of our superpowers would best connect to the concept of “slipping negativity”, we had to come down on the side of Empowerment: “feeling confident in ourselves”. Amplifying the weirdness of connecting a quintessentially evasive maneuver with Empowerment is the fact that we typically consider Empowerment to be “the One Superpower that rules them all”. Slipping? Really? But Empowerment sounds so strong and dramatic! More like a knockout punch. And slipping sounds so…the opposite of a knockout punch.
Well, we had the chance to explore this question a bit last night when one very young big-brained superhero (not yet a club member) fell into tears in the halls of Yesler Community Center. Having witnessed some of the activity that led up to the tears, we approached this young bbs (whose name we did not know) and asked him if the reason for his sadness was that he felt like the world was against him. The tears wouldn’t let up long enough for him to answer so we quickly noted that we sometimes felt like the world was against us too and could understand.
From there, we hurriedly explained (over his sobs) Jen’s idea of how he might “slip negativity”. And then, we provided a demonstration. “Imagine: negativity—>(slip left)…negativity—>(slip right)…negativity—>(slip left)”. Almost immediately, teary sad face turned into teary perplexed face. As soon as we got teary perplexed face, we asked him if he wanted to give it a try. After abruptly shaking his head “no”, he immediately started slipping the “negativity” that we had already begun to throw at him. And by his third slip, he was actually laughing out loud through his tears. By this time, the very young big-brained superhero’s caretakers had apparently noticed something amiss and rushed over to adjudicate the he-said-she-saids of the tear-inducing incident while we quietly slipped away (Note to potential members: Incident adjudication services are not provided by The Big-Brained Superheroes Club).
Whether this episode serves as an archetypical example of either Jen’s notion of slipping negativity or our BBS idea of exercising Empowerment is debatable. Even so, we were incredibly impressed by how quickly “slipping negativity” changed the nature of the problem with which we were dealing. We went from crying over the world being against us to—at the very least—getting some entertainment out of it. And while it may be that this conclusion is a bit anticlimactic—lacking the drama typical of what we think of as the knockout punch—we have to ask ourselves: “How many knockout punches do we even have in us throughout our lives?”. And might small little daily slips of negativity pile up into something more powerful than all those punches combined?
The Kids in the Hall Do Math
"Can I have a math problem?" is, as we mentioned on Twitter recently, probably our favorite big-brained superhero FAQ. How this tradition got started we don’t recall, but we’ve pretty much given up on making it through the halls of Yesler Community Center without being stopped by this question at least once (mostly at least thrice). And having zero interest in looking a gift horse in the math, roll with it we do. Even if it means scheduling an extra 20 minutes for a trip to the bathroom.
Why do we love this question so much? Well, we know that number talk is important in our early years, and apparently, ready access to basic math knowledge correlates with success on the PSAT. But our love of this question goes much deeper than that. This question, for us, is all about our superpowers:
- Sense of Adventure: Anytime big-brained superheroes are eager to solve a problem, they’re exercising their Sense of Adventure. And it all begins with a Sense of Adventure.
- Kindness, Empathy, Teamwork: Somehow some way we’ve learned to use math as a means of communication. A point of connection. Contra approaches like this one, our hallway math is a group effort. We suspect this cooperative approach may be good for all our big-brained superheroes but most especially for our girls (who, BTW, are our most frequent inquisitors by far).
- Critical Thinking, Creativity, Adaptability, and Persistence: Hallway math, sans pencil or paper, creates an interesting challenge for us. How difficult can we make it for our big brains and still keep it achievable? How far can we test their boundaries and even their sense of themselves? How can we, ever so briefly and subtly, blow their minds? While it may sound ridiculous, these really are the questions we ask ourselves. All in this quintessentially transitory space.
We love these indisputable reminders that thinking, learning, and connecting can and should be happening everywhere, maybe even especially on the way to the bathroom.
According to a study conducted at Yale University and published online in the Journal of Educational Psychology earlier this year, emotional connection in the classroom can have a major impact on students’ success in school. Students tend to thrive in classroom environments in which teachers are sensitive to students’ needs; teacher-student relationships are warm, caring, nurturing, and congenial; teachers take students’ perspectives into account; teachers refrain from using sarcasm and harsh disciplinary practices; teachers express warmth towards, respect for, and interest in students; teachers encourage student cooperation; and teachers are aware of the students’ emotional and academic needs.
This phenomenon has been very apparent here at The Big-Brained Superheroes Club when our Empathy superpowers are in full effect. For instance, when one of our Big-Brained Superheroes was briefly engaged in an unproductive interaction with another one, rather than immediately criticize his behavior (it’s not as if he didn’t already know it was wrong), we expressed some understanding. We told him that we understood where he was coming from and that it was ok for him to “hang out in his limbic system for a bit” before reciting The Big-Brained Superheroes Club Oath, which he did. And instead of having the incident devolve into a power struggle (as these things so often do) with hurt feelings and moping all around, our young Big-Brained Superhero came back to us ready to re-engage in the activities we were all enjoying. Everybody learned.
However, the big challenge we’ve had is finding the right balance between the more prescriptive style of authority that a lot of our Big-Brained Superheroes are far more versed in and the more cooperative approach outlined in the study described above. One of the benefits of being an after-school program is that we have an even greater opportunity to make these emotional connections than we might have as conventional school teachers. But one of the drawbacks is that we lack the institutional authority that conventional school teachers can typically assert, and this lack of institutional authority does present its own set of challenges.
Respect is one of the superpowers we’re working to build and exercise. The need to demonstrate Respect to generally recognized authority figures has a certain—somewhat obvious—logic inherent in it; the need to demonstrate Respect to everyone and everything else may require a bit more abstract reasoning. One method of getting our young Big-Brained Superheroes to consistently demonstrate respect to us might be to assume an air of authority even without the institutional backing. But even if that suffices for us, we still aren’t addressing the deeper, more abstract, problem of Respect for all things that we all need to build. And this is where we come full circle…can we eventually get to Respect through Empathy? If so, is that the better (if not the most direct) path?
Our Shared Superpowers
One of the primary missions of The Big-Brained Superheroes Club this summer is to help our Big-Brained Superheroes clearly see themselves as positive actors in the world—to help them realize and build on the best parts of themselves. Along those lines, we’re going to focus on solidifying a language for and an awareness of our superpowers, such as leadership, teamwork, and critical thinking, while we draw, write, invent, and perform.
Our Official Dictionary of Superpowers:
- Teamwork: joining together to accomplish our mission
- Leadership: inspiring, encouraging, and being an example to those around us
- Kindness: being thoughtful and considerate
- Empathy: feeling/thinking what someone else is feeling/thinking
- Sense of Adventure: desire to try new things and make mistakes
- Critical Thinking: questioning our assumptions
- Adaptability: ability to adjust to new situations
- Persistence: sticking to a goal
- Empowerment: feeling confident in ourselves
- Respect: having regard for others
- Willpower: being able to intentionally control ourselves with our brains
- Creativity: giving our brains the freedom to connect things in a new way
UPDATE: Curious about where our particular concept of superpowers came from? Check out our Origins Story Part 1 of X.