Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Your Real Education Came from the School Bus

The WSJ Writer strikes again. Remember last time I was rather willing to concede a few points to her? I still appreciate her concerns and recognize that they're coming from a good place, but this article really struck me as taking a turn too far in the wrong direction. A couple points made me think for the rest of the evening after reading, and I hope you don't mind indulging me as I ramble on them a bit.

One was referring to YA readers as "children." By the time I was twelve, I no longer considered myself a "child" in the same sense that I did when I was six. And certainly we're stretching a bit to apply the term "child" to a sixteen-year-old reader. The fact is, perhaps it is the perceived age of the readers themselves that is most troubling to Ms. Gourdon. They do not see themselves as children even if their parents or teachers would like to apply that label. And already we see the appeal of many of these stories--they treat the reader as capable, able to comprehend a more complex world than a child can. Beyond this, they show similarly aged protagonists learning agency and taking ownership of their own futures. Contrast this with a middle-aged woman who wants to call you a child, and we'll see where the readers fall every time.

This is only tertiary to what I found myself really chewing on after reading the article, but perhaps vital to understanding what I considered next.

The author notes that "Well-intentioned messages, in other words, can have the unintended consequence of opening the door to expectations and behaviors that might otherwise remain closed."

Really? These doors would have stayed closed? Where does Ms. Gourdon think that young people learn about the darker side of the world? School? Their parents? That these more difficult elements stay locked in a neat box until the individual's 18th birthday?

I'll tell you where I learned about the darker stuff in my young life.

The school bus.

Most of my real education came from the school bus. I learned about pot from our resident stoner, and discovered that, handily, it was quite true what one hears about "the munchies" when I pawned off my lunch leftovers on him every day. (This was in my mother's Mrs. Claus "You don't eat enough, you're too skinny, EAT, EAT!" phase when she insisted on packing me lunches equal to my own body weight.) I learned about cutting because a friend was, for a short time before seeking help, a cutter. I learned the struggles of schizophrenia and that anti-psychotic medications can cause crazy weight gain when the kid who lived the next street up ballooned fifty pounds in a couple months.

I learned about all these things whether teachers or my parents let me in on them or not. And I learned them better than I could have from my parents or teachers, because, intrinsic in all these lessons was another facet: These were all people.

They were real people, with more elements to their personalities than just "kid with mental problems" or "kid who smokes too much pot" or "self-destructive kid with self-mutilation issues." We laughed together, sneaked snacks onto the bus together, made fun of our insane cranky bus driver together. Was I ever tempted to engage in any of these "deviant" activities? No--I saw how dumb pot made Resident Stoner in a way I couldn't have from a textbook.

The point is, a good book can be a lot like a school bus full of peers. You can learn about those darker elements of life while understanding that those who engage in destructive, dangerous, or deviant behavior are people, too.

And that's an important lesson. Resident Stoner eventually grew up, joined the Marines and the church, and became what society would call respectable. But even before that, I knew that he was a good person who just happened to have some faults. Like everyone else. His just happened to be more visible. Same with the rest of the cast of misfits.

So what is it that YA literature can teach that probably shouldn't stay locked up, behind closed doors? That people struggling with issues are people. That they could be a friend, a sibling, could be you. Books show this in a way that other venues just plain can't.

I still say that there may be examples out there where sensationalism is, if not the goal, the end result, and that this trend toward darker issues does set us up to make sensationalism that much easier to fall into. I still say that I think the trend toward darker stories may be excluding perfectly good "lighter" stories that happen to not be trending right now. But in the end, young adults read to experience and learn what they don't experience and learn in their own lives. And books are a perfect medium for exploration while maintaining an outlook that embraces humanity.


MrsC said...

Interesting post, Rowenna :) I read voraciously as a YA, stand out books being The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper and Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park. Mostly though I read Victoria Holt (yetch) and Georgette Heyer (yay!)and every one of the back issues of the Readers Digest condensed novels my parents collected. Many of which I tracked down to read in their full versions.
In the 70's I don't recall there being much contemporary YA lit. around. Famous Five? St Claires? Help! There wasn't a lot of material exploring the dark side of life, but thanks to Enid Blyton, Willard Price and Arthur Ransome there was plenty of adventure at a scale way beyond my suburban upbringing. That was a vicarious thrill and a half! But looking back, what a crazy diet. Definitely lacking in the kinds of vitamins and minerals of fiction that YA books have these days...

anachronist said...

A very good post. YA literature might or might not be useful but teens will always find out about the darker side of life, no matter whether adults treat them like "kids" or not. School buses, locker rooms, your own backyard - there is simply no escape from it. I learned about porn at primary school, from kids who amused themselves stealing...their own parents' blue magazines. Now I bet they wouldn't have stolen them as there is the Internet even in their own mobile phones. As you wrote, knowing about stuff is one thing, repeating the same pattern - quite the other. If there are some books which can help and entertain them at the same time - so the better.

coffeepearlsgrace said...

As a teacher and an aspiring writer, I am quite passionate about YA literature, and I couldn't agree with you more here. I particularly love this: "The point is, a good book can be a lot like a school bus full of peers. You can learn about those darker elements of life while understanding that those who engage in destructive, dangerous, or deviant behavior are people, too." Well done! I enjoyed reading your post.