Published in 1967, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton has become the foundation for coming-of-age, young adult fiction, mesmerizing middle school kids with stories of broken homes and damaged youths simply trying to find their place in an unforgiving world.
When I first read it in eighth grade, as cliché as what I’m about to write sounds, Ponyboy Curtis’s narrative spoke to me. It’s the earliest time I can remember where I’d heard a part of my own voice in a character, someone my age I could actually relate to.
It’s a different kind of relation than, say, The Catcher in the Rye. Sure, both play off of the loss of innocence, but their narrative voices are so stark in comparison: Ponyboy’s is insightful, compassionate, and callow; Holden’s is bitter, angst-ridden, and downright whiny at times. Although they both spoke to me at definite points in my life, as an adult who sometimes incorporates “Slight Rebellion of Madison” into his seventh grade curriculum, I can say that I can barely make it through. I simply do not have the same sympathy I used to have for Holden because in my current predicament working a thankless, underpaid job and saving for a wedding, there’s no time for complaints.
The Outsiders, for me at least, has endured into my adulthood. The key is found in the accessibility of the narrative and, more so, that it draws on the common human emotions of wanting to be accepted, understood, and in many ways cared for. That’s what good literature does – allows us to feel with the characters, to experience with the characters, as if they are extensions of ourselves.
The loss of innocence has always been an enthralling theme in literature, for I think it lends itself so well to the human condition. Ultimately, in order to mature, we have to lose our callow conceptions of the world and realize it’s not the insularly idyllic place of our youth.
I’m not in the business of ruining kids’ childhoods, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying; however, my style as a teacher has always been to treat my students as adults, so I have authentic conversations with them where we discuss current events and anecdotes from my life as a means to show them how unfair life can be sometimes. I’ve shared with them experiences of personal loss – whether it was being present when my grandmother passed away or having to go back to night class knowing that my grandfather wouldn’t make it through the night or even having to carry my beloved cousin’s coffin after his tragic death three years ago.
That’s not to say there aren’t positives in my life as well: The day I met my fiancé; how I got down on one knee in London, and she said yes; how critically supportive my family has been in making me the man I am today; how I’m lucky to have friends I can call brothers; how I’ve watched past students grow up to become upstanding, young adults and how I’ve witnessed many of them mature right before my eyes.
Knowing me and having heard about the books we examine in eighth grade (highlighted by Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon), by about seventh grade most of my students insightfully notice that much of the literature we examine in middle school deals with somewhat depressing plots with bleak endings. In short, we do not read flowery, idealized plots. My reasoning for this is that life is not always fair or easy, but rather a combination of successes and failures, tragedies and triumphs even. Ultimately, the win or loss isn’t what matters; it’s what is learned because of it.
So, if Lennie and George’s plight in Of Mice and Men allows kids to understand the value of companionship; if Flowers for Algernon allows kids to see why they themselves need to be more empathetic; in the seventh grade if John and Lorraine’s actions in The Pigman impart that there are consequences for our actions and oftentimes there is unexpected, collateral impact that comes with them; and, in the sixth grade, if The Call of the Wild can relay the necessity of adapting in order to survive, well then I guess I’ve done my job. More so than that, though, the kids have done theirs.
The Outsiders, though, does not have a barren ending. Yes, the events that follow the rumble indeed are tragic, yet there is so much humanity present in the deaths of Johnny and Dallas Winston (spoiler alert – they both die). That’s the discussion my seventh graders and I had last Friday. Johnny dies a hero, he dies “gallant” as Ponyboy says; Dally, meanwhile, died a lowlife, dreg. At the same time, in his final stand where he commits suicide by raising his unloaded gun at the police, he too dies “gallant.”
This was a slippery slope to discuss with the students, one I prefaced by putting in the suicide disclaimer that if you or anyone you know is contemplating suicide, don’t discount it; inform an adult immediately. I then proceeded to explain to them how Dally lived by the choices he made, for better or worse, and while the text does not explicitly state it, I contended that he wanted all the greasers to be present when he pointed that gun for one, specific purpose.
The classroom was quieter than a library during exams season; the kids uncharacteristically waited in anticipation, not one of them blurting out an inarticulate idea. In some form, I explained to them that Dally, emotionally mangled from his loveless upbringing and having just lost his prized confidant Johnny, martyred himself for the better of the group. In being gunned down before his friends, he showed them a glimpse into an alternative reality, a future that could one day become very real for some of them. The greasers weren’t hoods; that was the end hoods met, one way or another.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the passage, rich with visual and kinesthetic imagery that makes the unfathomable killing of a kid seem as graceful as it is savage. That’s fiction, believable, visceral, real:
Dally raised the gun, and I thought: You blasted fool. They don’t know you’re only bluffing. And even as the policemen’s guns spit fire into the night I knew that was what Dally wanted. He was jerked half around by the impact of the bullets, then slowly crumpled with a look of grim triumph on his face. He was dead before he hit the ground. But I knew that was what he wanted, even as the lot echoed with the cracks of shots, even as I begged silently— Please, not him… not him and Johnny both —I knew he would be dead, because Dally Winston wanted to be dead and he always got what he wanted.
Nobody would write editorials praising Dally. Two friends of mine had died that night: one a hero, the other a hoodlum. But I remembered Dally pulling Johnny through the window of the burning church; Dally giving us his gun, although it could mean jail for him; Dally risking his life for us, trying to keep Johnny out of trouble. And now he was a dead juvenile delinquent and there wouldn’t be any editorials in his favor. Dally didn’t die a hero. He died violent and young and desperate, just like we all knew he’d die someday. Just like Tim Shepard and Curly Shepard and the Brumly boys and the other guys we knew would die someday. But Johnny was right. He died gallant.
How do we die “gallant”? By standing for something, by not compromising ourselves for others, by doing what is right if and when we’re called upon, for, as Lorenzo (Robert DeNiro) says in A Bronx Tale, “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”
If I can impart that one adage on my students, then I’ll feel as if I’ve done my job and done it well. Unfortunately, you usually have to waste something to understand, just like you have to lose someone to truly appreciate him, just like you have to see the ugliness of humanity before you can truly grow up.
And, as I always tell my students, once you do, you can never forget it.