Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Reindeer Games

As Christmas approaches in New York City, the seasonal festivities reach frenzied levels: Christmas music blares from speakers in stores, on the radio, in one's head of its own accord; the streets are lined with pop-up tree vendors, plying everything from the traditional balsam and Douglas firs to evergreen and pine; cafes and restaurants offer sweet, seasonal treats made from pumpkin and apple, cinnamon and spice; and primetime television stations air the annual roundup of holiday programs that they've been doing, certainly since my childhood, and probably even before that.

One such show, which I watched last week, is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, created in the 1960s and voiced by Burl Ives as the narrator, Sam the Snowman.  It's one of those relics from my youth that both reminds me of the tenderness of being a kid at family holidays as well as how much time has passed since then and how much the world has changed since "claymation" was considered an acceptable form of entertainment.

The story chronicles the experiences of Rudolph, a young reindeer buck who was born with an unusual luminous red nose.  Mocked and excluded by the other young bucks because of this trait, Rudolph is initially shunned by the clan and sets out to find a place where he fits in, only to return after various trials and travails to save the proverbial day.

As I watched Rudolph for the umpteenth time, I was struck by the emphasis the show places on Rudolph's social rejection by his peers and his decision to run away from home.  His being different is initially intolerable to the other members of society including his parents who try unsuccessfully to hide his affliction.  Of course the truth is unveiled, and it is because of the group's intolerance to Rudolph's individuality that he decides to leave the village and find a place where he fits in.

Rudolph is accompanied by a similarly outcast elf named Hermey, whose dreams of becoming a dentist are mocked by the other elves.  Depressed about being discriminated against, they team up with the idea that they're both independent, and that they should be independent together.  Along the way, the duo meets Yukon Cornelius, a boisterous prospector whose one desire is to find silver and gold.

After run-ins with the Abominable Snow Monster and a stint on the Island of Misfit Toys (home to toys with multiple "defects," for example, a polka-dot elephant and a cowboy riding an ostrich), the trio ends up back in the village as wandering heroes.  They have tamed the monster and convinced Santa to find homes for all the misfit toys.  But suddenly, a huge blizzard comes and Santa asks Rudolph to guide his sleigh with his shiny red nose lighting the way.  Rudolph agrees and is finally treated better by his fellow reindeer for his heroism, due to his "defect."

A great story about how we are taught and expected to conform to social norms, as I watched Rudolph this year, I could not help but draw parallels to the Toa Nafasi kids back in Moshi.  Are they not each a Rudolph or a Hermey?  Trying to fit in, but perhaps with a quirk here or a foible there, something that makes them different?And are they not shunned, at least initially, if not outright ridiculed?  Teased and made to feel "other than"??  And might they not, if given the chance to showcase their quirks and foibles, prove themselves just as capable if not more so than their peers, the other reindeer bucks and elves-in-training....?  Toa Nafasi certainly thinks so.

Our whole ethos has always been about inclusion and how, although we are a grouping of diverse and dissimilar characters, we each carry within us something very special.  This Christmas seems like a perfect time to remember and even celebrate that each one of us is unique.  AND THAT IS A GOOD THING.  After all, if a scarlet-schnozzed reindeer and an elf with a dental desire can subdue the Abominable Snow Monster, liberate the Misfit Toys, and save Santa's bacon, I'm betting our kids with Toa Nafasi can do anything they want!  And Toa Nafasi will help them!!

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