Awakenings

By Trevor Scott Barton 11-14-2012
Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, author of 'Awakenings.' Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

I remember the first time I saw the movie Awakenings. I was living at Jeff Street Baptist Center and working with a community of inner-city teenagers from the Clarksdale housing projects in Louisville, Ky. 

Monday nights were Dollar Movie Nights for us and we would load up in our orange van (affectionately called The Great Pumpkin) and head out to the theater. On that Monday night I chose Awakenings as our movie of the week, hoping that my kids would identify with the 'helping each other overcome' theme in the story. My dream was deferred. They hated it! 

Within 15 minutes of the start of the movie they were throwing popcorn at the screen. We got up and changed theaters to something faster paced with more action. I had to promise to check my movie choices with them before they agreed to go with me again.

I loved the first 15 minutes of Awakenings, though, and went back to the theater to see the whole movie by myself on the next night. I identified with Dr. Oliver Sacks (played by Robin Williams) and the compassion, commitment, and creativity he had toward his patients suffering with post-encephalitic disease, a 'sleepy sickness' that broke out in the world just after the First World War. This disease left the sick in varying states of suspended animation, unable to realize that years were passing by, unable to know that they were 40 years older than when their bodies succumbed to the disease. I saw myself in the way he came home from the chronic hospital where he served and poured himself into the study of little known plants he tended in his sparse apartment. I felt myself in the community of dedicated staff and friends around him in the hospital. I understood why the movie received three Oscar nominations, one for best actor (Robert DeNiro for his role as Leonard), one for best picture, and one for best writing of a screenplay adapted from a book.

The movie led me to the book Awakenings by Oliver Sacks and into the literary and neurological worlds of one of the finest writers and doctors of our time. He taught me to picture people as worlds, a variety of worlds:

"in the landscapes of being in which they reside. And the picturing of worlds requires an active exploration of images and views, a continual jumping-about and imaginative movement instead of a static and systematic formulation." 

I like the image 'landscape of being' as I see my neighbors around me. I like the action 'continually jumping about' and 'moving imaginatively' as I live with my neighbors, appreciating them for who they are instead of what static and systematic formulations say they should be. These images and actions help me see the world with insight and grace. I hope they help you, too.

Trevor Scott Barton is an elementary school teacher in Greenville, S.C. He is a blogger for the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center

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