I sit behind my desk, pretending to busy myself with paperwork, while I wait for my students to finish filing into the classroom. It’s the usual eclectic mix, a complicated cross-section of young people, defying simple classification. Sure, there are a few with tells, like the big kid who even at fourteen has a burly physique and a likely future as a school jock, or the one who’s helping to program another kid’s smart phone, revealing what some might call a nerdish bend, or the very quiet girl who takes a seat at the back of the room, already assigning herself the role of outsider. I take all comers, because I feel that what I have to teach is important, and because it’s something everyone should learn.
After all, it’s my job to prepare these kids for the very real possibility that they’ll become superheroes.
The bell rings, announcing that the period has started. Without saying a word, I stand up and turn to the whiteboard that dominates the wall behind my desk. With a marker, I write the words “What kind of superhero do you want to be?” in letters large enough to be seen by every one of my thirty-two students, no matter where in the room they’re sitting.
As I write, the class quiets, students settling into their seats, putting away their phones, and facing the board with at least a modicum of attention and curiosity. The squeak of the marker tip against the whiteboard is clearly audible in the ensuing silence. Finished, I turn to face my students.
“Good morning, people,” I say, my gaze going from face to face, meeting eyes, drawing them in. “Welcome to Ethics for Future Superheroes. In case any of you were wondering, I’m your teacher, Ethan Wright. You can call my Mr. Wright, or teacher if the first is too ironic for you. I’ve been teaching this class for a while now, and I like to think I’m pretty good at it. By the end of term, you’ll have a good idea of the answer to this question.” I tap the board behind me. “Any questions of your own?”
No one speaks. Most of them stare back at me, their expressions running the gamut between curious and bored. Some are staring out the windows at what I’ll admit is a gorgeous late summer day. A few are surreptitiously checking their phones. Par for the course, so to speak.
“In the interesting times in which we find ourselves,” I say, raising my voice just enough to collect the straying minds, “superheroes are quite common. The news covers their exploits at the top of every hour. The Internet is crowded with videos of spectacular feats of daring and bravery. Commentary on their battles against the forces of evil dominate social media.”
I sweep the room with my gaze. “In the physical sense, no one knows what makes a person a superhero. Whether its in the genes, or environmental, government experiments, or an act of God. Some people get the gift, some don’t. Within the next few years, any of you might discover you have it. But” I hold up a finger, the motion sudden enough that one or two of my students flinch, “having a superpower doesn’t make you a superhero. Some people go the other way. You may know about some of them. They may even be in this school. I hear they like to get together back behind the gym to smoke pot and dis my class.”
This draws the intended chorus of soft laughter and nervous giggles.
“Your unique, personalized answer to this question,” another tap on the board, “will be what guides you through your life as a superhero.” I place my hands on my desk and lean forward. “So, what kind of superhero do you want to be?”
My students stare back at me. One or two shift in their seats. A few awkward coughs ring out. No one answers. But I can see that I’ve gotten their wheels turning.
“Mr. Jones,” I say, and the big kid jerks upright in his seat, like he’s touched a live wire. “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?”
He glances around, nervous and embarrassed at being put on the spot. “Um, well, I suppose, super-strength.”
I regard him with wide-eyed interest. “Why?”
A shrug. “Be kinda cool to be able to throw cars around and stuff, I guess.”
“Hmmm.” Well, what did I expect from a fourteen-year-old? My gaze darts to the brainy kid. “Mr. Martinez, how about you?”
He smirks, pushes his glasses up his nose. “Oh, that’s easy. Super-intelligence. Just imagine all the problems you could solve. You’d go down in history, easy.”
I smile. “You would indeed. With Louis Pasteur, Albert Einstein, and J. Robert Oppenheimer. Each of them changed the world, for better or worse. Ms. Ofuda, what superpower would you most like?”
The girl in the back looks away from the window, a startled expression on her face. “Huh?”
“Superpowers, Ms. Ofuda. I’m asking what superpower you’d pick if you could pick one.”
“Oh.” She frowns. “Uh, maybe force fields or something. No, wait, invisibility. Yeah, I’d pick invisibility.”
I nod. “Interesting. I guess we all would like to be able to disappear now and then. It would sure make it easier to get out of classes like this one.” Another ripple of nervous chuckles passes through the room.
“Of course, like any superpower, how you use it determines how ‘good’ it is.” I move to my computer and pull up a list of videos I bookmarked earlier. It isn’t hard to find a few that fit the responses of my students. With a click, I activate the digital projector, and my first selection appears on the whiteboard, beneath the words I’ve written.
The clip is blurry and shaky, clearly captured with someone’s smartphone. In it, we see what looks like a standoff, with police hunkered down behind their cars, trading occasional shots with figures wearing masks who have taken shelter in a café. The pop and rattle of weapons fire is audible, along with the shouts of the officers, warning people to clear the area.
Abruptly, a man in an armored suit leaps into view. The outfit he’s wearing is designed to make him look as intimidating as possible, with a skull mask and adornments like spikes and chains. With effortless ease, he picks up a nearby car and hurls it through the window of the café. Several gunmen crouched behind the window are swept away by the improvised missile. There one second, gone the next. Out of the corner of my eye, I see more than a few of my students wince. But the display has the desired effect. The gunfire dies off, and the remaining masked figures throw down their guns and hold up their hands in surrender.
I tap my mouse once, then again, selecting a new video. A grainy image appears, with a time stamp in one corner, revealing it to be security camera footage, without audio. Two men stand in front of a convenience store counter, brandishing guns in a threatening manner at a woman behind the counter. She’s loading cash into a plastic bag, her movements clumsy and frightened. Then one of the gunmen spins around, as if something caught his attention. His companion glances at him, also distracted.
Suddenly, the gun is yanked out of his hand, to hover for a second in the air, apparently unsupported. In an instant, it’s turned to point at him, and then it goes off. The image of what it does to the robber’s head goes pixelated, edited to hide the most shocking aspects, but its easy to see the gun shift its aim and fire again. Again, the results are obscured, but in the final frames of the video, both prospective thieves lie on the floor, while the cashier backs away, face contorted in screams we can’t hear. The gun drops to the floor, and whatever invisible presence used it to kill the two criminals is gone without a trace.
As I stop the video, I glance at my audience. No one is checking their phones or looking out the window now. It’s gone so quiet in the classroom that you could hear a pin drop. With a little smile, I bring up another video.
It’s a news report, footage sweeping across a landscape of fiery ruin. Broken walls stick up out of piles of rubble. Flames lick up behind shattered windows. Here and there, emergency workers sift through the wreckage, their bright yellow protective suits streaked with ash. The reporter’s voiceover talks about how this was a chemical fertilizer plant near Kosovo, part of an economic rebuilding effort. The plant employed over four hundred people, and in the middle of a full shift, the plant’s methane venting system was shut down, resulting in a pressure overload and a catastrophic series of explosions.
Authorities suspected that this was the result of a cyber-attack, and only moments before the report went live, the known superhero and cyber-vigilante MegaHack claimed credit for the attack, insisting that the plant was being secretly used to manufacture explosive compounds for local terrorist insurgents resisting the democratically elected government. The report ends with a shot of medical workers carrying a loaded body bag out of the ruins and placing it on a flatbed truck nearly full with other such bags.
One last click shuts down the projector. I face my students, seeing the conflicting emotions and evident confusion on their faces. I know it’s a bracing experience, not because this is something they’ve never seen before, but because I know they weren’t expecting to see it in a class. Presenting material like that in a learning environment completely changes the context. All of a sudden, you realize that this isn’t just entertainment, something you watch because it pops up on your list of recommendations or because your friend sent you a link. No, you’re supposed to take something away from this, understand it in a way you otherwise wouldn’t.
“So,” I say, drawing out the word. “What we’ve seen here is superheroes doing what superheroes do. I’m not going to pass judgement, say that what they did was right or wrong. Yes, people died. Yes, they were doing bad things, and might have been bad people. And yes, maybe those heroes could have done things differently, in a way that wouldn’t have resulted in anyone dying.” I look from face to face, catching eyes, drawing their attention. “And that’s the point I’m trying to make.”
I step back from my desk, straightening. “Super-strength. Super-intelligence. Invisibility. Great powers. Very useful. I’m not disputing that. But if I had my choice, I’d pick a different one, one that makes you stronger than super-strength, smarter than super-intelligence. One that’s harder to find than invisibility.”
I pause, letting the moment stretch, waiting.
They can’t take the suspense.
“What power?” Mr. Jones asks, blurting out the question, then glancing around, as if surprised that he spoke.
“That’s a good question, Mr. Jones. What power could be so powerful, but at the same time so rare that almost no one uses it?” I cock my head to one side. “The funny thing is, it isn’t even a superpower. It’s a power that anyone can have, and everyone should.” One last dramatic pause for effect. “It’s called perspective.”
I turn to the whiteboard and spell it out. “Perspective. That ability to see things from a different angle. To see things from a different point of view. To see things as other people see them, not just as we see them.” With a flourish, I cap the marker and toss it onto the desk. “Perspective gives us the ability to stop, to really see, to think. Without it, we are more prone to act to quickly, to make snap judgements, to respond to a situation without assessing it. Without taking a moment to see if there is some solution other than the first one that comes to mind.”
I glance at Mr. Jones. “Perspective might let me see that I can tell a group of gunmen to surrender or else I’ll throw a car through a window and kill them.” My gaze goes to Ms. Ofuda. “I might let me come up with a way to subdue a pair of criminals that doesn’t involve two headshots and a traumatized store clerk.” Finally, I look at Mr. Martinez. “It might help me to see that I don’t have to blow up a fertilizer plant full of people to stop them from making explosives.”
There’s a long moment of awkward silence as everybody thinks about that.
Then the defensiveness kicks in.
“Well,” Martinez pipes up. “Those were bad people. They were doing bad things. They deserved what happened to them.” He glances around, seeking support for his opinions. A few of his fellow students nod.
I nod, too. “You have a point. The evidence does suggest that they were doing bad things. Of course, we don’t know if they were really bad people. We don’t know what circumstances led to them doing what they did. It’s a hard world to get by in. People do things they shouldn’t when they get desperate. Sometimes, they see crime as the only way to provide for the people they care about. That’s not what they should do, but maybe they just lack perspective.” A sad smile flits across my face. “I can’t judge them, any more than I can judge the people that stopped them. But I do know that now we’ll never hear their side of the story. Because they’re dead.”
That sinks in, and even Martinez doesn’t speak up this time.
I sigh. “Before you act, before you do something with such…final consequences, take a moment and try to see things from a different point of view. Do that,” I step back to the board, tap a finger beneath the first words I wrote, “and you’ll know what kind of superhero you want to be.”
In the ensuing silence, the bell rings, ending the class period. My students rouse themselves. Chairs scrape and rattle, throats are cleared, a few whispers exchanged.
“That’s all for today, folks,” I say. “Your only homework is to think about what we’ve talked about. And I’ll see you all next class. We’ll discuss another power then, one that’s just as strong as perspective.” I grin at the surprised looks that are turned my way. “That one’s called compassion.”