Privilege, troubled teens, and crumpled paper

Freedom to Read Week, February 22-28, 2015

Entry #7: author/editor Jen Hale writes of teenage rebellion, balls of paper, and Rob Lowe.



Confession time: when I was 14, I was deeply in love with Rob Lowe. Yes, long before he was Deputy White House Communications officer or starring in goofy DirecTV ads, Rob Lowe was a beautiful teen idol, starring in St. Elmo’s Fire, Youngblood, and The Outsiders. This latter film I watched on television a few years after it had come out, and I recorded it and watched it over and over again.

And it wasn’t because of Rob Lowe. (Well, okay, it was a little because of Rob Lowe… and Patrick Swayze and Emilio Estevez and Ralph Macchio and C. Thomas Howell and Tom Cruise and Matt Dillon and the rest of the stunning cast, including Tom Waits.) And then I read the book, and I can honestly say it changed my life.

The_OutsidersPublished in 1967, The Outsiders is as relevant today as it was then. The story of a group of greasers who live on the east end of town, the story is told by Ponyboy Curtis, a 14-year-old kid whose parents have been killed in a car accident six months before the story begins. He lives with his brothers Sodapop and Darry, who is the guardian of both boys. He hangs out with his best friend Johnny, a jittery kid who is scared of his own shadow on account of being beaten up by the Socs a couple of months earlier, and due to the fact his parents seem to loathe his very existence. The Socs (pronounced soe-shus) are the rich kids from the other side of town, who ride around in their expensive cars and beat up the greasers, the poor kids from the other side of the tracks. Johnny idolizes Dallas (whom they all call Dally), a hood who has done jail time, and while Ponyboy is leery of Dally, after a while he gains a begrudging respect for the guy. Rounding out their group is Two-Bit, a jokester who seems to be drunk all of the time, who pops by the house every morning to have chocolate cake, which, when you’re a trio of young guys with no parents, is what they have for breakfast every morning.

In a sudden turn of events near the beginning of the book, Johnny and Ponyboy find themselves in serious trouble, and need Dally’s help to get them out of it. There is some action, heroism, and a tragic but hopeful ending to the story, all parts of what would make a good, cheesy YA novel.

What raises this book up above the cheese factor is the universality of its message. In two key scenes — one near the beginning, when Ponyboy runs into Cherry, a beautiful redheaded Soc whom he sees at the drive-in, and one closer to the end, when another Soc chats with Ponyboy before the big Soc vs. Greaser rumble that happens near the end of the book — Ponyboy realizes that there isn’t much dividing the gangs. The greasers don’t have money or cars, and face a lifetime of marginalization and back-breaking, blue collar work. Their parents are abusive, absent, or dead, but the boys stick together like glue and find some peace within their camaraderie. The Socs have money, but by never having to work for anything, they fall into a lives of drugs and alcoholism, cruising the neighbourhood looking for greasers to beat up. They don’t stick together and instead blame the greasers for their troubles. Deep down, they are jealous of the greasers, and so they are always looking for the next opportunity to jump one of them and beat him to a pulp.

Despite Ponyboy’s revelation that “we’re really just the same, you and I,” he realizes it just doesn’t matter. They might be similar, but a greaser will always be a greaser; a Soc, a Soc. Even though he and Cherry hit it off, when she returns to her pack she turns to him and says if she doesn’t acknowledge him at school on Monday, don’t take it badly. If something bad happens in town, and a greaser and a Soc are standing nearby, the greaser will always be blamed. They’re referred to as “hoods,” while the Socs are considered upstanding members of society.

SunriseWhat sticks with most readers — and viewers of Francis Ford Coppola’s film, which is surprisingly true to the source material — is the scene where Ponyboy and Johnny are watching a sunrise, and Ponyboy begins quoting Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

Nature’s first green is gold.
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Johnny is transfixed by the poem, and it sticks with him throughout the book. Near the end of the book, he leaves a message for Ponyboy, and he writes, “I’ve been thinking about … that poem, that guy that wrote it, he meant you’re gold when you’re a kid, like green. When you’re a kid everything’s new, dawn. It’s just when you get used to everything that it’s day. Like the way you dig sunsets, Pony. That’s gold. Keep that way, it’s a good way to be… don’t be so bugged over being a greaser. You still have a lot of time to make yourself be what you want. There’s still lots of good in the world.”

It’s a poignant moment, and we read it and hope Ponyboy will be able to break out of the mould he believes has been put in place for him, that he’ll be able to become something other than a greaser. But in order to do so he’ll have to work so much harder than everyone else.

In the wake of the incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, last year, a story went viral about a high school teacher who was trying to teach his class about privilege. He told each student to rip a piece of paper out of his or her notebook and crumple it into a ball. Then he put a recycling bin at the front of the class, and told them that it represented wealth and privilege. They all had a chance to attain it. All they had to do…was get their piece of trashpaper into the bin, sitting exactly where they were. The kids in the back immediately began complaining loudly, saying it wasn’t fair because they were so far behind to begin with. They’d have to work so much harder than everyone else. The kids in the front were elated, because they’d have no problem sinking their baskets. The results were what you’d expect them to be. The teacher stood up again, and explained that those who had so much further to go, who weren’t privileged, who had to fight, who started off with virtually no chance at privilege, weren’t helped at all by those in front. But if the privileged students in the front had begun arguing that the ones in the back should have been given the same chance, the teacher may have hesitated, moved the bin to the middle of the room, and they all would have worked together to have attained success. The issue wasn’t that the ones at the back should have learned to shut up and work harder; it was that those in the front should have helped those behind them.

The Outsiders is the story of a group of kids who are going to have to fight to find any success in a world that doesn’t accept them for who they are. It’s a story of a group of privileged kids who not only have everything handed to them, but who resent and beat up on the less privileged kids who are already at a disadvantage. The book has been banned from school libraries, public libraries, entire counties, and school systems, because of the situations and “strong language” (the strongest curse word in the book is the constant repetition of “Good glory!” that the boys yell…which happens to be a phrase my church-going grandmother used all the time, so it doesn’t exactly fall into the four-letter-word category some folks would have you believe it does). And yet, in a world where a teenage boy is gunned down in the street in Missouri by a person who should have been ensuring his safety, or a man is choked to death despite pleading that he couldn’t breathe — and where both these deaths are deemed justifiable by a court of law — a book like this is more relevant than ever.

And what makes it even more extraordinary is that S.E. Hinton was merely 14 years old when she wrote it. It’s a book that packs a powerful punch, that transcends its own time and is still relevant 50 years later, that contains dialogue that manages to be meaningful without being sappy, that is filled with unique characters unlike any others in fiction…and it was written by a young woman who had just entered puberty.

Nothing Gold Can StayThere’s a famous episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Buffy acquires the ability to hear the thoughts of everyone in the school, and at the end of the episode she explains that no matter who you are in high school, you are in pain. The cheerleaders have to keep fit and are mocked mercilessly by fellow teammates; the jocks have the pressure of the entire school to do well on the field; the nerds are being pushed by parents to do well in school to get into the top universities, while being bullied by the other kids who are jealous of their intelligence — every person in high school is experiencing anxiety, feelings of worthlessness, of not being good enough, of being scared of their future, and of the overwhelming realization that childhood has ended, and adulthood awaits them, for better or for worse. It’s a terrifying time, and few books have ever captured just how fleeting innocence is and how daunting the future can be the way The Outsiders does. Nothing gold can stay.

Jen HaleJen Hale is an editor in all areas of book publishing. For 15 years, she was the in-house senior acquisitions editor at ECW Press, publishing bestsellers and award-winners, as well as working on multiple books with the same authors, who enjoyed working with her and wanted to do so again. [including this strange bearded man] Jen now works as a freelance editor for ECW Press, Wolsak & Wynn, and various other authors and publishers, specializing in fiction, pop culture (TV, movies, music), golf, memoirs, and pretty much every aspect of non-fiction publishing. In her parallel world alter-ego, she is author Nikki Stafford, television addict and writer of various companion guides to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Lost, Angel, Alias, and Xena: Warrior Princess.