Chapel talk: Of Disney princesses, Huck Finn and our better selves

Matt Roach teaches English, coaches soccer and basketball, and resides in Austen Colgate dorm. In a recent chapel talk, he reflects on his own heritage, and the human struggle between our stronger and weaker selves.

So that writer who came to Peddie, the Guy, Chuck Klosterman, talked about how he asks people the hypotheticals to figure out who they really are. Now, I (obviously) love hypotheticals, but I have another way of figuring out a person’s true self. So here’s what I sometimes do: I ask people which Disney princess they prefer. This question is great. I asked this question during a recent advisee dinner - it was fascinating. People tend to feel VERY strongly about their choices, and their answers are revealing.

Shallow people often prefer Jasmine—and you can see why.
Although, some might say Sleeping Beauty is hotter.
People who are intense tend to like Mulan.
Snow White is popular with short guys.
Swimmers like Ariel, if Maddy Fitzgerald is any indication.
Belle is beautiful and smart—and has low standards for your appearance and cleanliness.

There’s no easy or right answer here.

I tend to prefer Nala, who, besides being a Lion, is pretty bad.

If you’re ever asking this question around Hannah Spears, don’t speak highly of Cinderella. At this advisee dinner, Hannah brilliantly destroyed Cinderella’s claims to fame. Hannah thinks she’s whiny and weak, and points out—correctly, I suppose—that while, yeah, Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters are a little tough on her, at least they were not actively trying to murder her. Ariel’s soul is in jeopardy. Snow White was poisoned. Sleeping Beauty was drugged. By contrast, Cinderella has white girl problems. Oh my god, she has to do CHORES! Well, maybe she should stop befriending disgusting mice.

ANYWAY, I happened to be defending Cinderella in this conversation, because her story had a strange resonance in my own family history.

This fall, my grandfather passed away. And, as sometimes happens when tragedy strikes a family, long lost family secrets began pouring out. And the story of my grandfather’s mother turned out to be nuts. She was like three tragic Disney princesses put together.

My Uncle Mike did some digging, told an incredible story at my grandfather’s funeral. This is the story:

My Great Grandmother was born Mary Mazinelli, the second daughter of two Italian immigrants, in Utica, a cold Industrial town in Western New York. Her life was hard. Her father died when she was young. Her mother, now a single Italian woman in a place where it was bad to be both of those things, sought desperately to remarry. She soon found a man willing. But, this dude had one small stipulation. He was like, “I’ll marry you, but you have to give up both of your daughters. I don’t want to raise two girls that aren’t mine.” Cinderella’s stepmother was nothing compared to this jabroni.

Shockingly, though, my great-grandmother’s mom agreed to his offer—or, at least, could do nothing to stop him.

So Mary Mazinelli, along with her sister, was shipped off to an orphanage in Rochester, New York. There, because she was Italian and had been abandoned by her parents, she was treated horribly. She was made to clean up after the other children, and considered the lowest and most wretched orphan in the orphanage. It was not a good situation.

But my great-grandmother was tough as nails. She hung in there. Kept working. And finally became an adult. She changed her name from Mazinelli to Fennel, so that she wouldn’t be discriminated against as an Italian. And soon, she married an Irish guy named Daniel Roach, who was the man, and had a sweet last name. They had a son, also named Daniel Roach—my grandfather. They lived in Buffalo, New York. Life was suddenly looking very good.

But soon, tragedy struck again! Her husband, Roach, died when my grandfather was just 7 years old. My great grandmother was suddenly in the position her mother had been in. Would she make a similar, desperate choice?

She would not. Instead, she opened up a shop in downtown Buffalo, where she sold greeting cards, dice, hosiery, and books. She raised my grandfather lovingly. And soon, she met a kind and awesome Persion rug dealer, an Armenian named Albert Gullian. They married, and could afford to send my grandfather to Williams College, where he played football and lacrosse. Mr. and Mrs. Gullian lived happily for the next forty years, in a house full of beautiful rugs.

Now, this story is crazy. It sounded particularly crazy when I heard it, for the first time, through my tears, at my grandfather’s funeral in October. Over the next couple days, my family and I excitedly sorted through the epic story. I mean: the evil stepfather! The mother who would abandon her kids to an orphanage for some guy! My great-grandmother’s inspiring resilience: given up by her mother, spurned by orphans, forced to change her name because of racism, and widowed in her early twenties—with a young boy! And yet she found a way to keep going, and created our family’s very existence. I owe my life to this woman’s willpower and toughness.

And, I have to confess, I felt no small amount of pride in this story. I have this woman’s DNA, man! My gene pool is clearly Litt, I thought. So iconic.

Sure, as a white male with great parents and a college education, I never personally experienced abandonment, abuse, sexism, racism, poverty, or the death of my spouse. But, I thought, there’s no question this woman’s toughness is deeply embedded in my bones. No WONDER I’m such a great guy, I thought to myself. Everything makes sense. But — and some of you, for various reasons, may see where this is going — soon, another thought struck me.

Sure, I have my great-grandmother’s blood in me — but I also have my great-great grandmother’s genes. The woman who put her two daughters in an orphanage in order to marry a guy so wonderful that HE WOULD MAKE HIS WIFE PUT HER TWO DAUGHTERS IN AN ORPHANAGE.

And—look—I can’t ever begin to put myself in the emotional position of this woman. It’s quite possible, maybe even likely, that she felt she had no other choice. That she couldn’t take care of them on her own. But still: giving up your daughters this way is, at the very least, not heroic. Sort of selfish. It privileges yourself over people you love. EVEN CINDERELLA’S STEPMOTHER WOULD NEVER HAVE DONE SOMETHING LIKE THIS. It’s not a good move.

And so, here I am. I have both of these women’s genes—the resilience, toughness, and brilliance of Mary Mazinelli, and the shortsightedness, selfishness, and weakness of her mother.

Once I came to this realization, I started seeing pale versions of both these people in myself in small moments. When I’d teach a good class or help out a friend, I’d tip my cap to my great-grandmother. When I’d be slow to grade papers or shirk responsibility for a failure I’d nod ruefully towards her mother.

And I started seeing my past in these terms as well. I recalled my failures as a college athlete, and how I didn’t work through them. I remembered a moment in high school when my friend got in trouble for something that was mostly my fault, and I didn’t step forward and own up to it. And I remembered moments where I was weak:

Like, in pre-school, I was on a see-saw with a kid named Brad Goodman. This was in 1989, before Playgrounds were safe, and this see-saw was: Massive and scary. And, as I was suspended like 30 feet in the air, he glanced up at me with this look that was like pure evil, and he jumped off, leading me to crash to the ground. I suffered cuts, and my first experience with human cruelty. I refused to go to school the next day. In fact, I dropped out of pre-school altogether. I was not a tough kid. Looking back, it seems really unlikely that I would ever become a teacher—or even graduate elementary school. My great-grandmother would have been disgusted by how much of a wuss I was.

But I also remembered some moments of resilience. How I’ve been dumped, and recovered with dignity. How I was unhappy in my old job, and got a job at Peddie, a place I’ve loved for the last 5 years. How, two years ago, while playing basketball here, I ripped my kneecap off my knee, damaging the cartilage underneath. My doctors said there was a 50% chance I would never run again, and I called my mom, and cried. I felt sorry for myself for a day. But then I tapped into the Mary Mazinelli in me, and each day just tried to figure out how to make myself better, until I was. And while I get absolutely run on by Everson, Bryan, and Nate, I’m ok for an old man with a bad knee, and proud of myself for coming back.

The great writer George Saunders describes this split in ourselves in his essay on Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. As half of you will recall, Huck Finn is a questioner of authority, a critical thinker, and often a good friend. His buddy, Tom Sawyer, though more educated and from a wealthier family, is selfish, mean, and cruel. Huck is my great grandmother. Tom is her mother.

People, Saunders suggests, are split between two opposed aspects of self. There’s the United States of Tom and the United States of Huck.

“The United States of Tom looks at misery and says: Hey, I didn’t do it. It looks at inequity and says: All my life I have busted my butt to get to where I am, so don’t come crying to me. Tom likes kings, codified nobility, unquestioned privilege. Huck likes people, fair play, spreading the truck around. Whereas Tom knows, Huck wonders. Whereas Huck hopes, Tom presumes. Whereas Huck cares, Tom denies. These two parts of the American Psyche have been at war since the beginning of the nation, and come to think of it, these two parts of the World Psyche have been at war since the beginning of the world, and the hope of the nation and the world is to embrace the Huck part and send the Tom part back up the river, where it belongs.”

But the trouble is, for a lot of us, it’s hard to get rid of that Tom part. It was even hard for Huck—Tom Sawyer ends up sticking around and ruining Huck’s big moral stand at the end of the book. The Tom part of us is always making excuses, always has an angle that’s easier, and always justifies itself with privilege and misplaced entitlement. And when we feel vulnerable, when we’re feeling weak—that’s when the Tom in us really starts to come out.

When we’re struggling in a sport and losing games, or not getting the playing time we want—we blame our coach, we blame our teammates, we blame the refs. “THEY sucked!” We say, rather than standing up and owning our failures.
  • When we get a bad grade, we blame the teacher. “That test was bs!” 
  • We blame a college counselor if we don’t get into the school we want to. 
  • On a slow Saturday night, we blame the SNA when we’re not creative enough to have fun on a beautiful campus filled with interesting people. 
  • When we’re not attracting the people we want to attract, we say that there aren’t hot girls or guys around. 
You’ve heard this kind of stuff, read it on Twitter. You get the idea. And the trouble with all of these reactions isn’t just that they make us small and bitter people. I’m not making a moral judgment on any of this stuff, because I’ve done all of those things in my own life.

But when we think this way, when we’re Tom and not Huck; when we’re my Great Great Grandmother and not Mary Mazinelli — when we think this way, we really end up destroying ourselves. We lose the chance to improve ourselves after our mistakes. We don’t become better students, we don’t get better at our sport, and we continue to not have fun. We lose the chance to help others. And we retreat into our own selfish worlds.

But we don’t always do this. Sometimes, we decide to get in the gym and work harder. Sometimes, we study better the next time. Sometimes, we make the most of a slow night, and make connections with friends and teachers that will last the rest of our lives. Sometimes, we own up to our mistakes, fight through unfairness, do hard things that we know are right, and become better people.

Sometimes, we find the Mary Mazinelli in ourselves.

But remember, it’s your choice. Your actions have real consequences. You can always give up, and think of many really legitimate excuses. Mary Mazinelli could have done this at any point—when her mother abandoned her, when the orphanage treated her cruelly, when she was the victim of racism, or when her husband died. But she made the opposite choice. As Saunders suggests in his recent short story, Victory Lap, it’s always a choice. “To be good,” Saunders writes, “You just have to decide to be good. You have to be brave. You have to stand up for what’s right.”

You can own it, make the best of a tough spot, and emerge stronger. In many ways, Peddie, we’ve already done that this year, after this fall. So we know it’s possible. The trick is doing it every day, no matter what.

Who knows? Maybe, in 100 years, your great-grandson will be talking about how proud he is of you.