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Holinger: The superhero and the great graduate

Published: Friday, May 24, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

First, congratulations to the Fox Valley graduates. From preschool to college, you’ve totally earned the party you can’t wait for your parents to leave so you can start having fun.

If asked to deliver a commencement address (no worries – I haven’t), it would be brief: “Do what you love in life, and hope it pays the mortgage. If not, sell the house.”

To paraphrase George Orwell, all graduations are equal, but some are more equal than others. By the time you leave college, the luckiest grads will have experienced an epiphany, that moment when it hits them, “Oh, yeah, right, that’s what I want to be!” – whether it’s a doctor, chef or street musician.

That moment of discovery, of understanding, is transforming and changes a person as dramatically as Clark Kent shedding his tie, Tony Stark accepting his suit and James Gatz going from ne’er-do-well beach bum to suave, white-suited Jay Gatsby. Have you ever wondered why we pay 10 bucks and up to watch these 3-D fictional characters more than half a century old? Because we are them.

Clark Kent is an act we imitate when pretending to fit into normal society, whether at the Daily Planet or the checkout counter at Jewel. We shed our disguise when revealing our true natures, whether dancing to Mariah Carey, fly fishing a favorite river hole or using water colors to capture the landscape we can’t get out of our head.

Tony Stark tries to live unscathed by the demands put on Iron Man, and who can blame him, what with Gwyneth Paltrow waiting in his penthouse? Similarly, we are tempted to ignore life’s cruelties, injustices and responsibilities, such as bullying, the complicity of politicians and voting in nonpresidential elections.

James Gatz grew up a “nobody from nowhere,” and through a willed act of the imagination, transformed himself into Jay Gatsby, the self-possessed don of cool, who dreams of possessing his dream girl, even if it takes “killing a man.” Gatsby inspires us to reinvent ourselves with the same determination as Benjamin Franklin did when attempting to achieve “moral perfection” by recording his attempts to lead a virtuous life with the same intensity a dieter records his daily food intake. Indeed, who of us wouldn’t benefit from a slight personality adjustment? Who doesn’t dream of making it big, holding a chunk of change commensurate to last week’s Powerball jackpot and own more debonair moves and phrases than a George Clooney or Lauren Bacall?

If we need tissues to dry our eyes and dab our noses at the end of a summer blockbusters or as graduates cross the stage (as both my children did this month), it’s because our heroes exist not only on the big screen viewed through rose and green-colored glasses, but also because they live inside us. Every day we tear off a shirt and tie, don a metal suit or lust for the green light of a hopeful future just out of reach, but always promising to come within our grasp.

• Rick Holinger has lived and taught high school in the Fox Valley since 1979. His poetry, stories, essays and book reviews have appeared in more than 100 literary journals. He is the founder and facilitator the St. Charles Writers Group. Contact him at editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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