I enjoy reading teen novels, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. A good teen novel will have heart, humor, and a satisfying ending packed into a relatively small package. I don’t get as tied up in knots about the problems the characters face, not because the problems are superficial, but because I know they will be met and overcome. The girl will get the guy, or if not, she’ll learn that he was the wrong guy and get an even better one. Now, as much as I enjoy teen novels, I would never ever want to go back to being a teenager. Who would want to experience again all the social awkwardness, insecurity and cruelty of high school? Or, even worse, middle school?
I recently read Deb Caletti’s The Six Rules of Maybe. There is one aspect of the novel that has stuck in my brain. I keep pondering the way the main character attempts to reach out to the social outcasts at her school. Instead of ignoring them or putting them down to raise her own social status, this girl tries to befriend and help them. Usually the girl’s efforts keep backfiring. The weird boy she goes on a date with out of pity begins to stalk her. She plays matchmaker to two misfits whose problems only get worse when they become a couple. In the novel, the girl learns that her compulsion to take care of others comes from her own fear of abandonment. She begins to take care of her own needs, telling the stalker firmly that she wants to be left alone. So, the book doesn’t offer any solutions that would help social outcasts themselves, but it sure brought up a lot of memories for me.
When I was growing up, my family moved all the time. I didn’t get to go to school with the same group of kids from elementary school through high school. This can be a good thing, especially if you are unpopular. A new school can be a chance at a fresh start. Unfortunately, kids can usually always pick up on unpopularity even in a new group. At my middle school (well, it was junior high in my day, but I’m trying to keep up with the times!) there was this one boy who didn’t seem so bad to me, but he was loathed by everyone. Well, maybe not by everyone, but nobody had the courage to stand up for him. He was bigger than average, although not fat, and his hair was wild, and he tried too hard, which is always uncool. These things didn’t seem bad enough to condemn the guy to unrelenting contempt and torment, but he was subjected to it anyway. When I first got to this new school, I was nice to him. He responded by giving me a card and a necklace, and I got scared. I wanted to be friendly, but I didn’t want a romance. I rejected him. My own social status was so shaky, I didn’t have the confidence to continue being nice to him. Is it worse to be consistently unfriendly to someone, or to be nice to someone and then reject them? I still don’t know.
I often wonder what happened to this boy. I went to a different high school, since we moved again. I know he made through to high school graduation, because I was still hearing cruel stories about him from old friends. I think I’m afraid to find out how life turned out for him, but I truly hope things got better. I realize that he could have easily been one of these bullied teens who commit suicide. Back when I was a teen, we didn’t have texting and cyberbullying, but I can imagine the added pressure that these things cause. I would like to be able to say to a 13-year-old—to someone who is gay or being bullied for other reasons—that it gets better. Still, I can vividly remember how it felt to have those long years of school stretching out in front of me. How long is too long? How do you give long-term perspective to someone who hasn’t lived long enough to have any? I wish I knew.