By DAVID RIVAS
“Walmart TV ads inspire and motivate,” said no one ever. When they feature fan-boy/girl parents and a fanboy grandpa mentoring their young listeners with Star Wars-related advice, however — as the retail behemoth does in a recent ad campaign promoting their new Star Wars merchandise in anticipation of the much-hyped “Episode VII” — we can make an exception. The commercials really capture the essence of my experience with the epic space opera.
My older brother and I, thirteen years and no other siblings between us, had very few common interests; sci fi was one of them. I vividly and fondly remember my brother, a responsible grown-up NASA engineer, and I, a typically apathetic teenager, bonding while making a three-movie theater sprint to catch the 1997 theatrical rerelease of the original trilogy in one day.
I also fondly remember introducing my then skeptical girlfriend to the saga as we watched the new trilogy in the early 2000s. Despite its flaws, Episodes I-III served as a gateway drug into the beloved galaxy far, far away, and as an inspiration for one of my favorite Halloween costumes. She has since become my wife of eleven years and a bigger nerd than I.
More recently, George Lucas worked his magic as I watched all six films consecutively with my children (an eight-year-old son and a five-year-old daughter) — Episodes IV, V, VI, I, II, and III, in that order, as God intended.
By the time Anakin turns to the darkside, a single tear rolled down my son’s cheek, and I knew he got it. Now, my family and I, along with the human race, eagerly anticipate the robe-clad, lightsaber-wielding bonding that will take place on December 18, 2015, when “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” opens.
Those Walmart commercials rightly suggest that this story has a propensity to bring people together, despite generational gaps. Anthropologists or sociologists can explain how it’s ingrained in our collective psyche and shape what we value as a human race much more eloquently, and more convincingly than I’ll attempt here.
I’ll simply share four life lessons that I hope my kids can learn from the Skywalker twins.
Solving Problems with Non-Violence
I know. Lightsaber duels, spacecraft dog fights, Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen’s charred remains: these hardly seem nonviolent. An entire planet gets blown up in the first film. Although it’s hard to imagine playing Star Wars without mouthing the obligatory electrified sound effects of lightsabers as they crackle together in an inherently violent, epic battle, ultimately, Luke saves the day through an incredible act of nonviolence in “Return of the Jedi.”
Luke surrenders himself to the Emperor and Darth Vader, hoping to buy his friends time to destroy the deflector shield generator protecting the second Death Star so the entire rebel armada can sneak up on the Empire and win! Or so he thinks. Really, this turn out to be an elaborate ruse to destroy the rebellion and capture Luke.
This act of sacrifice seems to be in vain. After Forcing his dad off the stairs in battle, Luke says, with a confidence fueled by a blind, Force-driven faith that Vader can still be redeemed, “I will not fight you, father.” Eventually, Luke’s pacifist stance results in finding himself at the business end of the Emperor’s Force-lightning. Unable to bear the sight, Vader suffers a fatal wound, saving Luke from the Emperor.
Luke’s sacrificial decision to abstain from violence inspires the remnant of Anakin Skywalker that was deep down inside of Darth Vader to commit one final act of self-sacrifice, and the universe is saved. Star Wars teaches us that nonviolent conflict resolution encourages others to do good.
Kids, in real life, if we were all merely decent to one another, conflicts can be avoided.
My kids posing as Finn and Rey on Halloween featuring the Antelope Valley’s desert landscape as a background.
Subverting Unfair Societal Expectations
May I harken the Walmart commercial one last time, specifically the scene where a mother asks her daugher, “Why doesn’t Leia just let the boys rescue her?” The adorable little girl mumbles a character analysis that I hope my daughter will always come back to when she reflects as an adult why she thought Princess Leia was so cool: “Because she’s a modern, empowered woman unfettered by the antiquated gender roles of a bygone era.”
In a turn of fate that my daughter loves, Leia takes the blaster from one of her rescuers, and blasts a hole in the wall to rescue herself, Luke, Han, and Chewie. She’s an accomplished leader, who despite taking a beating, keeps going.
So much so, she impresses Darth Vader with her resilience to withstand interrogation in Episode IV. She plays an active role in leading the rebellion, particularly as she gives orders to the squadron circling around her like a team gathers around their coach in locker room listening to the battle plan before the Battle of Hoth in Episode V.
In Episode VI, Leia rescues Han Solo (again) from his carbonite captivity, and steps into to the frontlines in the climactic Battle of Endor, while nurturing and befriending the Ewoks. She finds that perfect balance between warrior and nurturer found in the greatest of leaders.
A well-rounded character and role model, Leia even speaks some of the most memorable lines in the series. Just to quote a few:
“Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.”
“Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”
“Why, you stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking Nerf herder.”
Don’t let society’s gender roles limit who you are. Son, embrace artistic and emotional expression. Daughter, play with whatever toys from whatever color Target aisle you like. Defy expectations, especially to do what you know is right. Never resist a witty quip.
Seeking Instruction from Wise Teachers
The theme of looking for help from those more seasoned than yourself comes across prominently throughout the six films. Luke has to look to Yoda and Old Ben, even post-mortem Ben, for guidance in the Force. Even Leia, the embodiment of self-reliance (as discussed above) in the series, opens the story with a call for help to the venerable Obi Wan Kenobi, the galaxy’s “only hope,” exemplifying what a healthy balance of independence and dependence looks like.
I suspect that since Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, Artoo, and Threepio, who have been around the galaxy a time or two, are in the forthcoming installment, this theme will continue. Now seasoned and thirty years wiser, the original cast will mentor Rey, Finn, Poe, and BB-8.
Just like age can erode chasms between generations, mentorship acts as a bridge, simultaneously connecting us to the past while influencing the future. Maybe it’s just because I’m a school teacher by trade that I’m placing such high esteem to the mentor relationship: I feel like I bring my positive learning experiences to my teaching practice, and I hope that in turn, I’m positively influencing the future, both with my students and my own children.
So, kids, learn what you can from the teachers (in and out of the classroom) in your life. Then go and do likewise; be the Obi Wan in someone’s life.
That time I ran into Mark Hamill, Luke Skywalker himself, at a USC football game. We spoke about film, life, and beating UCLA. USC lost that day.
Success Can be Achieved Amid Setbacks and Failures
Luke, with the help of his diverse band of friends, redeems his father, and restores order and hope to the galaxy. But the voyage, like a sloppily navigated hyperspace jump through an asteroid field, was bumpy … and it didn’t just take 12 parsecs either.
Luke loses his aunt and uncle, his home, and his right hand, finds out his dad’s been trying to kill him, and he kisses his sister. In fact, the first twenty minutes into “Return of the Jedi,” Luke has gotten himself and all of his friends captured by Jabba the Hutt. Just as all seems lost, Luke pulls a reverse diving board stunt, catching his brand new upgraded, green lightsaber in the battle over the Sarlacc pit.
What losses did Leia suffer? Oh yeah, she just lost her entire home world!
Each entry in the six-film series features a peripeteia, a reversal of fortune at a moment when all seems lost: When the proton torpedo shot needed to destroy the Death Star is an impossible shot; when in front of you Darth Vader stands pointing a lightsaber and behind you is the endless Bespin sky; when you’re locked out of the shield generator control room while surrounded by stormtroopers on the forest moon of Endor.
Whatever your metaphor of choice, you learn from setbacks and try again.
Kids, when life gives you the blues, make blue milk.
David Rivas lives in Lancaster, California, with his wife and two kids. He teaches English and the ways of the Force at Highland High School.
Photos courtesy of David Rivas.