Thursday, April 12, 2012

Caine's Arcade

I'm sure by now you've seen the video for "Caine's Arcade". 

The short film (linked above) became a viral sensation this week. It tells the story of a nine-year-old boy named Caine, who built an elaborate arcade made of cardboard boxes from his Dad's used auto parts store in East L.A.

One day a filmmaker, in search of a door handle for his car, happened across Caine. Inspired by the kid's amazing ingenuity and spirit, he decided to organize a "flashmob" to come and play for a day at Caine's Arcade. The film of the event has been shared over a million times on-line, and admirers of Caine have donated more than $100,000 towards a college scholarship fund for him.

The movie made me think a lot about my own kids. I'm happy to say that I see a lot of Caine's ingenuity and joyfulness in my boys (my girl being too young to allow me to see much of anything but a need to expel gas as present). And I hope that, like Caine's Dad, I can encourage the unique and creative instincts in all my offspring.

Still, I know that there is an obstacle to this goal -- and that obstacle is my long-standing fear of dorkdom.

I've written before about my nerdish history, but it wasn't until watching Caine's video that I realized how much I still struggle with some lingering desire to fit in. 

It's something I hoped that I had left behind in grade/middle school. Back then, I longed for inclusion with the cool kids. I would have done practically anything to gain the approval of the popular crowd. I tried to dress like the coolest girls (which was decidedly challenging as my wardrobe consisted entirely of a combination of hand-me-downs and cartoon-themed sweatshirts).

I wore a t-shirt with this picture on it three times a week for all of 5th grade.

I tried to talk about things that the popular kids talked about (for the record, not 'The Smurfs'). Most importantly, I worked vigilantly to hide any part of myself that differed from anything my peers considered "cool".

This plan was not successful.

Because my true self would insist on busting through in spite of my best efforts at the conformity that popularity demanded. I'd find myself waxing poetic, for example, about some totally awesome thing I'd seen on 'That's Incredible!'. Then I'd watch as my classmates backed away slowly from my accidentally unfurled nerd-dom, and I'd realize, once again, that popularity had eluded me.

Looking back, I wish that I hadn't spent so much time trying to be something that I wasn't, which brings me back to Caine. 

I think the reason Caine's story has touched so many people is that he's a kid who is unabashedly joyful about the bizarre thing he is passionate about. That's a rare and lovely thing at his age, which can be unkind to kids who are unique.

And I think a big part of that is Caine's Dad. He's totally supportive of his son. For months before the filmmaker showed up, Caine's Dad let his son work on his arcade. Who knows how many customers came in during that time and ignored Caine's efforts or even gave him funny looks, but Caine's Dad remained proud and supportive of his kid.

For me, that is the lesson of the film. I'm embarrassed to admit that motherhood has stirred in me some echoes of the unpopular kid I was back in school. It sometimes causes me to long for the approval of the best-dressed Moms at the school drop off. It makes me obsess over the Mommy-and-Me class friend who never invited us over for another playdate after the Snood vocally refused her homemade lunch. Worst of all, I worry that this fear of being "unpopular" will tempt me to discourage my kids' individuality so that they might "fit in" better. 

Which is kind of terrible.

Caine and his Dad show all of us how wrong this instinct really is. They're a wonderful reminder that the most crucial part of our jobs as parents is to help our kids become their best selves, and to never encourage them to become a self that someone else thinks is better.

I hope that I can always remember this as my kids continue to grow to face a world that may sometimes tell them that the things that bring them joy are dopey and not worthwhile. 

Luckily, if I forget, I know I can always fire up this video and spend some quality time at Caine's Arcade.