(All I Know I Learned From is an exploration into the ways in which I’ve been impacted by my favorite childhood cartoons, movies, and video game franchises. I explore the TV shows and films that fine-crafted my sense of personality and development. The late 80s and early 90s was a definitive era in America and I hope to relive my memories and spark some of yours with All I Know I Learned From.)
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have a long history in American culture and have spread across the globe in a frenzy since the television series debuted in 1987. Mixing the controversial combat-focus from the likes of He-Man and infusing it with Eastern philosophy, all-the-while not taking itself too seriously, TMNT became a hit with 80s kids.
One of the most iconic characters from the television series is Master Splinter. His wise words and unwavering patience and dedication to his sons struck a nerve with children of the era. Our parents were second-generation suburbanites working full-time to provide for their middle-class homes while their children watched television to learn life-lessons. In an era filled with religious strife and television controversy, Master Splinter was an odd-duck. He wasn’t an ultra-violent character and he only used violence as a means of protecting his family. To honor this martial arts master and father of four, I’ll be explaining the deep ways in which I’ve been impacted by Master Splinter and his philosophies.
I watched TMNT in its prime (1987-1992). Like many young boys, I had trouble regulating my anger and finding appropriate avenues of venting. I feel like my upbringing wasn’t all that different from my peers because of the work-requirements of families that were unique to the 80s and early 90s. It was the first real decade in which parents were expected to work full-time jobs while also being effective child-rearers. Expectations were high and the reasonableness of these expectations weren’t fair to parents or children. But cartoons provided a means for me to learn life-lessons vicariously through characters and lighten the burden on my parents.
If you were to ask my brothers, they’d be honest and tell you that I was an angry kid. My older brother was often patient with me while playing video games because I’d get upset and throw something, usually punches. I remember an incident when my older brother called me a cheater while playing my SNES so I gave him a bloody nose – before screaming like a girl and running away; he was twice my size.
It was clear that I struggled to handle my emotions. Much like Raphael, I needed patient-guidance to master my feelings. While at school in the 3rd grade, two boys were calling me names inside the classroom. The teacher had walked out for a moment when I had enough. I stood up and had a raging fit inside the class. I didn’t care who was around and I sure-as-hell didn’t care what they thought of me as I was saying the hurtful words that spewed out of me. Needless to say, I was sent home for being extremely disruptive.
My parents picked me up and it was a silent ride back to our house. When we arrived, my dad took me aside and had a very strong, but caring conversation with me. He explained that being upset was something that happened to everyone. He said that being upset didn’t give me the excuse to say and do whatever I wanted. It was a challenge for me to overcome. As soon as he said these words, I made an immediate connection to Master Splinter. My father was offering me a pearl of wisdom and I realized I needed to listen even if it was difficult.
Throughout the Turtles series, Splinter coached Raphael to master his anger and not let it overcome him. He once said,
“The path that leads to what we truly desire is long and difficult, but only by following that path do we achieve our goal.”
I realized that the cartoons I watched each Saturday morning were more than entertainment. They could, at times, offer true insight if I listened and applied the principles of what I learned to my life. As an adult, I recognize that this also had potentially negative implications. But luckily, the shows I watched always focused on non-violence as the first course of action. But risks aside, there are also great life-lessons to be learned inside each 30-minute television episode.
While inevitably, Master Splinter was a cartoon character and not an actual person, he did represent a certain cultural perspective we hold about human emotion. By infusing eastern philosophy into a Saturday morning cartoon, TMNT was able to show children relate-able characters that could teach kids how to handle their anger and frustration. This, in combination with parental guidance, was a very effective way for me to learn how to control myself.
I still have emotional reactions – that didn’t change. But how I handle my emotional reactions has changed. I’m able to put aside my anger and listen and reflect on how I’m behaving and how it impacts others. I’m able to remain calm and work toward productive resolutions instead of being destructive. And for that, I’ll always be grateful to Master Splinter.