Comparative Essay: The Hill We Climb and The Chocolate War
Without a vision or plan for change for a movement, little can be done. Even in situations where justice is in jeopardy and the status quo seems morally abhorrent, change is not a no-brainer. Being a part of a successful movement- either as a leader or a follower can instill a sense of pride. However, the success of one’s leadership and a movement can depend on the smallest of actions- but those actions must be done with purpose, conviction, and a willingness to diverge from the status quo before the moment passes. Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb”, Jacqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness, and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War all speak to the importance of vision, conviction, and timely action to break free from the status quo in successfully leading a movement- whether that movement is for the better or for worse.
Jerry Renault, in Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, had an inkling of a vision. He, and every student at Trinity, knew something was amiss. They knew that their brotherhood was false and maintained by fear. The monotony made them all sick- but Renault was far from successful in making a change. When Jerry initially broke from the status quo and refused to participate in the school fundraiser, it was not because of some great conviction of his. It was a command sent by the Vigils, an authority group of upperclassmen that pulled strings in the school behind the scenes. His rebellion against Brother Leon could hardly be called such, it was merely obedience to a different authority figure. However, the idea that with such a small action, he was able to disturb the universe- as terrifying as it was- it struck Jerry. So when his assignment was up he continued to refuse.
Unfortunately Renault didn’t have much of a plan beyond that. He gained a sense of pride in his actions, but for him to rebel and get away with it he would need to have some power behind him. The support was there. What Jerry did was brave, and a few classmates recognized him for it. “I never thought of just saying no. Like you did.” a student said to him in the hallway. “‘Boy, you're cool, know that?’” another had said. Those few were potential first followers. If he simply asked them to join him, they might’ve. Even Goober, the closest thing Jerry had to a friend, tried a feeble attempt of support by stopping his sales. However, there was no conviction in his action, nor in the actions of Jerry or any of the other students at Trinity. Renault had disturbed the universe and caught its attention, but was in no way prepared to act when it pushed back upon him.
The leaders that succeeded in Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, did not win because of moral superiority or justice. They were not the heroes in this story. However, Archie and Leon moved swiftly and with purpose. Brother Leon needed the school to reach their quota in sales to cover up his spending scandal. Archie and the Vigils had to reestablish their authority in the school. Both of them had to crush Jerry’s spirit in order to do so. Their goals were clear and they leveraged their power skillfully to achieve the ending they desired. To simply rely on the idea that what’s fair and right will eventually succeed is naive and ineffective. With power comparable to the wealth and privilege that mark the leaders of our world, whether right or wrong Leon and Archie even seem above fate.
Just as the enemies faced by Jerry in Chocolate Wars, the enemies of progress that we face in America are far from easy to topple- institutional injustice, division, and years of bigotry. These enemies can be easy to ignore as long as no one kicks up too much of a fuss about them. However, in the wake of 2020’s protests and riots fueled by frustration with our nation’s injustice, and the direct attack on democracy a few weeks prior to the 2021 Presidential Inauguration, Gorman’s poem The Hill We Climb reminds us that “quiet isn’t always peace”. Complacence and blind pride is the enemy of progress.
“Being American is not just a pride we inherit”, Gorman spoke “but a past we step into and how we repair it”. For example, the United States once openly relied on the labor of enslaved Africans and has now reached a place where Amanda Gorman, a young black woman, is able to have that very same nation tuned in to hear her speak at the presidential inauguration. However, there is much more progress to be made. Our country still relies on slave labor in the form of prison labor. The prejudice that justified slavery still lives today and is evident in our justice system’s bias. It took large effort to reach where we are now. But, you can’t enjoy the view without the trek. To have your man on the mountain moment, you have to push forward.
Gorman reminds us we have not reached the top, and that we can only reach a brighter future if we are “brave enough to see it”. The most courageous and patriotic thing we can do is press and push for change. The protestors who challenged authority figures or rewrote stanzas of ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’ were not degrading our nation or rebelling without cause- they were actively pushing to make it better. Gorman’s poem was not simply a piece of inauguration fluff to fill up a time slot- it was a reminder that we must not be satisfied with our present and be willing to undertake the journey to a brighter future.
However, the time we have to take action for a brighter future is not always known. In Jacqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness, a little girl named Maya joins a new school. Despite her attempts to make friends she is shunned by the main character Chloe. Chloe never considers the impact of her actions until it is too late, and Maya is gone forever. Woodson places emphasis upon the idea that “one kindness” is all it takes to make an impact. Actions, large and small, are compared to pebbles dropped in a bucket. The ripples that pebbles leave in their wake are our actions’ impact- small but when combined with the efforts of others powerful enough to make the bucket overflow.
If one brave child had stepped up to join Maya in playing skipping rope or look at her and smile things could’ve turned out differently. Perhaps Maya would still have to leave in the end, but if Chloe had been that brave child and looked at Maya kindly at least once she would’ve made another little girl so much happier. Perhaps other students would have followed along and a wave of kindness could’ve surrounded Maya in her short time with them. And Chloe wouldn’t have to sit by the lake after class, throwing pebbles into the water and watching the ripples disappear into the hardly moving water. She would have some pride knowing that she had made a tangible difference in someone’s life as a leader, instead of feeling the gnawing guilt she felt in acknowledging her inaction.
The portrayal of the two failed movements in The Chocolate Wars and Each Kindness, as well as the one still in progress in The Hill We Climb can serve as valuable lessons in what it takes to be a successful leader and what can make or break a movement. Conviction, vision, and timeliness are instrumental in one’s success, whether it means making a difference in another child’s life, rebelling against corrupt authority figures, or pushing past decade’s worth or bigotry and division.