As a shy, awkward, noise-sensitive, anxious child, I often imagined I had someone big and strong with me at school. As a kindergartener, I pretended I was friends with the Power Rangers, even lying to my classmates about knowing them to make myself feel less afraid, less unwanted, less small and powerless. When I got older, I imagined Raja, the tiger from from the movie Aladdin. Even older than that, I imagined Aragorn, who I envisioned as my really awesome uncle (making me a sort-of princess) but let’s talk about Raja.
Jasmine was one of my favorite characters. She was interesting and kind, and she had this big, cuddly, protective tiger who helped her, who was on her side 100%, and who was capable of scaring away all the people who made Jasmine feel unsafe and small. Sometimes as I walked in the hallways of my school, hoping to be ignored but desperate to feel special and seen, I imagined I had an invisible Raja with me. I’d even reach out my fingers with one hand when I particularly needed to feel comfort, pretending I could feel Raja’s fur as we walked. Doing so made me feel less alone and more confident. Raja wouldn’t let anything happen to me. Raja was big and strong and on my side. I knew he was there, I could see him, though no one else could.
My Sunday school teachers told me I should remember Jesus was with me, or God, and picture them when I was scared or lonely. (Not that they knew about Raja. I’d learned from the Power Rangers not to try to pass off the lies I told myself to make myself feel better as truths.) But some of the bullies claimed to have Jesus with them too. I couldn’t pit Jesus against himself. Even though I knew Jesus wouldn’t approve of their teasing, I also knew Jesus doesn’t love me more than anyone else. Prayer and other aspects of my faith were very incredibly important to me growing up, but in this matter I didn’t always feel like my faith was helpful. So I pictured Raja.
I’d lean against his warmth. I’d brush his fur. He’d walk beside me in the halls and curl around my chair in class. Raja would let me lean against him on my bed at home and cry. Raja would sleep between me and the window, which I was afraid some thief or murderer would come through. Raja would bound along beside me at recess and in gym class. Raja would growl at the teacher I loathed and bare his teeth at the kids who were the meanest to me. I had Raja, even if I was the only one who knew it.
I’d forgotten all about this until recently, when a friend and I were bemoaning how little Raja was developed in the live-action Aladdin, released earlier this year. Raja had been important to both of us, and we’d both been so disappointed not to see more of him in the movie. The admission of Raja’s role in my childhood slipped out, almost before I consciously remembered it myself. I realized I had never told anyone about Raja before. Nor had I remembered my Raja in a long time. But thinking on the character, introduced perhaps for the first time to a new generation of kids through the new movie, I wish that they’d had the supportive, protective figure in Raja that I knew as a kid, and that had so helped me.