I’m participating in a new series on the blog today! For nearly a year, Jenmarie – who runs the wonderfully eclectic Star Wars blog Anakin and his Angel – has done a monthly feature she opens to all bloggers in love with the galaxy far, far away. It’s called “Star Wars ComLINKS” and the goal is to inspire those of us who love Star Wars to get together and talk about it. I’ve come to love participating in the Top Five Wednesdays and I also enjoy the sense of community that comes with the awards and tags circling the blogging world. So I was excited to join Jenmarie’s ComLINKS and combine that feeling of community with STAR WARS. What’s not to love?? Anyway, this month’s topic was to discuss a favorite Star Wars memory.
There are soooooo many amazing Star Wars memories to choose from that, honestly, the idea of picking one almost intimidated me to the point where I considered shying away from jumping in and joining the ComLINKS family this month. But, after a little consideration, my choice became obvious – both because of the enjoyment the memory always brings to me and also how it’s ended up shaping my career and my vision of the world.
When I was in tenth grade, Kathy McCoy, my high school English teacher, did something that absolutely blew my mind. She told us that we were going to be using Star Wars to explore the Hero’s Journey. We’d read The Odyssey and we’d talked a bit about King Arthur but now we were going to learn how Luke Skywalker walked the same mythic steps as those ancient heroes. In an excited haze, I didn’t even remotely consider the potential academic implications at first. All I could think was we were going to be watching Star Wars IN SCHOOL. Life could not have been better. AND we weren’t just going to be watching a clip or two. No, we were going to be watching A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return Of The Jedi IN THEIR ENTIRITY. This was real and it was going to happen AT SCHOOL. Aaaahhhh!!!
I was pretty certain life had plateaued. How could it get better than this? I was watching the Star Wars Trilogy AT SCHOOL FOR AN ACTUAL ASSIGNMENT. This was amazing beyond the ability of words to convey!
But then, amidst my wild excitement, something incredible happened. I began to learn just how much more there was to Star Wars than I ever realized. By tenth grade, I had already seen each film countless times. I had read everything I could find in the Expanded Universe, many of the novels more than once. I had committed both the original films and the Special Editions to memory. I had collected dozens of the Micro Machine sets and even built my favorite characters and ships out of LEGOS (note, this happened in the early 90’s before you could just buy Star Wars LEGOS…I had to get creative). I thought I knew Star Wars. But there was a whole dimension to this saga I didn’t even know existed – and once I discovered it my life would never be the same.
In Kathy’s classroom we meticulously walked through the works of Joseph Campbell while simultaneously exploring interviews given by George Lucas and a variety of theological/philosophical/mythic deconstructions of the saga. Each day, before we’d jump into the films, we’d discuss what Luke had done before, where he was on the Hero’s Journey, and where he was going…charting his threshold guardians and various descents into the abyss. For the first time in my life I learned that a film could be more than just something fun. A film could be analyzed and deconstructed, teaching so many more lessons than simple ones about lighting and camera angles. Kathy taught me that films specifically, and popular culture in general, could have all sorts of symbolic layers right below their surface. They could do so much more than simply entertain!
What I first learned in Kathy’s room – both the fact that there were symbolic and academic importance to items from popular culture and the techniques to find and explore them – has shaped both my personal and my professional life. Now I can’t watch a film without instinctively looking for layers, metaphor, and symbolism to discuss. And this shapes my teaching too. As a Youth Minister, my first tribute to the lessons I learned in Kathy’s class was to put together a six week movie event with my kids where we explored the Theology of Star Wars, watching each of the six films in the saga. I read a bit of what was written about the theological issues depicted in the films but I also spent hours watching them, pausing to pull apart lines, reflect on scenes, and apply my own religious studies knowledge to what Lucas presented. It was so well received my Youth Group students begged to do it again with another film series!
When I transitioned from Youth Ministry into teaching high school fulltime, this academic deconstruction of popular culture was something I carried into the classroom. I presently teach an elective course called Christianity and Popular Culture which has the twofold focus of a) illustrating to the students how “secular” works often use “sacred” themes, tearing down the presumed distance between the two and b) helping the students learn to pull apart films, TV series, books, comics, and music to find the symbolism within the work. Star Wars has often been a central part of that course and, in this coming school year, it will receive the spinoff treatment with its own elective – Star Wars and Contemporary Myth-Making where we will explore how Star Wars functions as a modern myth and investigate elements from the Expanded Universe as well as the new Disney Canon to see what functions as myth should, adding both intelligently and spiritually to the story and what is simply entertainment to be marketed bearing the Star Wars name.
I can’t imagine how I would teach or (often) what I would teach if Kathy McCoy hadn’t used Star Wars to engage me and lead me into an entirely new way of exploring the academic realm. I also can’t imagine how my personal life would function if I hadn’t learned how to comb the expanse of pop culture for depth and meaning. I spend so much of my free time animatedly talking with friends and obsessively going over the minute layers to be found in contemporary movies, TV shows, comics, novels, and music. This has become an intimate part of the way my mind works, of how I interact with the world, and it all began with Star Wars in tenth grade.
As if that wasn’t amazing enough, this story has the best postscript ever. You see, I was in tenth grade during the academic year of 1998-1999. Do you see where this is heading? I vividly remember sitting in Kathy McCoy’s classroom one afternoon in the spring of 1999. We had done our study of Star Wars earlier in the year but now Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace had arrived! As we were discussing the newest installment in George Lucas’ saga I (jokingly) suggested we take a field trip to see The Phantom Menace. I will never forget Kathy pausing, reflecting for a moment, and then saying, “Well, we do have the field trip money…” She went on to say all she had to do was get it approved. I think I stopped breathing. Was this really happening?? Was there a chance we could go see a Star Wars movie AT THE MOVIE THEATRE for a SCHOOL FIELD TRIP?!? Could this be real?? Should I ask for no final exam for the course too or go play the lottery or something?!? Could I be this lucky??
Well Kathy got the field trip approved, figured out all the logistics, and in the waning days of my tenth grade year, we all took a field trip to see The Phantom Menace at our local movie theatre. FOR REAL. As a teacher now I can fully appreciate the heat I’m sure she had to have taken from colleagues who were unable to see the value of a trip like this. But she weathered the storm and we all enjoyed THE BEST FIELD TRIP EVER. The judgment I’m sure she dealt with is something I understand now. Many, many people don’t know how to see the academic value to the study of popular culture. But, for better or worse, what’s popular at any given moment tells us something about ourselves as a people and as a culture. It’s like doing history in the present moment. And when you have filmmakers and storytellers as intelligent and visionary as George Lucas, the film can transcend the excitement of watching a spaceship battle in a darkened theatre to challenge, teach, and inspire the mind as all great mythology is meant to do.
It’s worth pausing here a moment to make something clear. Art is subjective and we all like certain things and dislike others based on what speaks to us. Well, for me, I love the Prequels. While I’ll always love the Original Trilogy more (as that’s what I experienced first), I’ve never understood the Prequel bashing that goes on. Their stories are intelligent, layered, and filled with emotional depth. Their stories are also important! Without them, the Star Wars Saga loses something essential. So I was excited to see The Phantom Menace then, and I still love it now. I also love Attack Of The Clones and Revenge Of The Sith for what they are and what they add to Star Wars.
So thank you Kathy for opening my eyes to how much more the world had to teach me, once I learned how to look for it. And thanks to Jenmarie for this Star Wars ComLINKS topic and giving me the chance to go back and relive all these lovely memories. I encourage everyone to check out Anakin and his Angel if you haven’t already and – if you love Star Wars too – maybe you can contribute a favorite memory of your own!
May the Force be with you :).