The Outsiders

“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” (Hinton, page 5)

This is both the first and the last line of The Outsiders, S. E. Hinton’s first published novel, written when she was sixteen years old. It is about a boy named Ponyboy Curtis, living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where young people are divided into two groups, the Greasers (wrong side of the tracks) and the Socs (rich kids). Ponyboy is a greaser but wants to move beyond that role without betraying his friends. Perhaps the novel isn’t “great literature”, but it appeals to junior high students who so often feel that they, like Ponyboy, are outsiders.

I still remember the first boy — an “outsider” — I gave it to. His name was Gary, and he was sixteen years old in grade eight. He told me that no one had ever been able to make him read a whole book, but when I told him something of the plot (gang rumbles, runaways, a hero saving other kids’ lives), he took home The Outsiders.

Three days later he was back. He said, “I finished it. Do you have any more like that?” I did indeed have more, but Gary dropped out of school soon afterwards. Tragically, he suffered severe brain damage in a motorcycle crash a few months later. I think of Gary each time another boy tells me he’s never read a book.

I love this novel because it continues to speak to my students today, just as it did to students I taught twenty years ago. In all the times I’ve recommended it, I’ve had only two students say they didn’t enjoy it. Many, many more have loved it, and come back asking for more.

As with all books that people love, this one sparks interesting responses. Ponyboy loves poetry, and quotes Robert Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay”. When I talk about this book with groups of students, I read the poem and we share what they think it means to be “gold”. Every time I do this, kids sign out our copies of Robert Frost’s books. Because Ponyboy reads Gone with the Wind, circulation of that always goes up too.

I continue to look for books with the power and voice of The Outsiders. I want books that show kids that they are not alone, that other people their age share their feelings of fear or loss or pain or loneliness. I want books about kids who battle their problems, who are at times overwhelmed by them, but survive. I want to help the outsiders see that they really aren’t outside at all.


Make Theirs Chocolate

When I arrive home from school the last day in June, my husband and daughter and dog always come running to greet me. This is not because they love me. This is not because they want to help me haul in the boxes of stuff without which I cannot survive until September. No. They only want to see what loot my students have given me.

In the past few years I have not received many gifts. I am not sure whether this is because I don’t have a home room, or because the students have nicknamed me Conan the Librarian. In any case, my family appreciates the gifts I get. Of course they appreciate them more if they’re chocolate.

My husband has reservations, however. He has this idea that if you go to a potluck dinner, certain guidelines must be followed. Never eat purple food. Never eat anything that moves. To be completely safe, eat only what you brought. Needless to say, he is equally cautious about the food students give me, although I have assured him that there is no need to worry.

Our dog has no such reservations. He once polished off a dozen frozen cinnamon buns (a farewell gift from a grade eight boy — he said he hadn’t had time to bake me cookies). The dog devoured this delight, wax paper and all, in the time it took me to make the trip from house to car and back.

My daughter is more discriminating. She is interested in the non-food gifts I receive, mainly because they might be items she can use. She also appreciates the uniqueness of some gifts: the dummy grenade with a face painted on it, for example. She is patient when I share stories with her about the gifts I truly treasure, like the student-made Christmas ornaments, or the crystal rose bowl one student gave me the year I got married.

From my point of view, any gift is wonderful because it means that a student is telling me that my efforts are appreciated. From my family’s point of view, Cadbury is fine, but Purdy’s is even better.

The Garden

“A garden is evidence of faith. It links us with all the misty figures of the past who also planted and were nourished by the fruits of their planting.”
Gladys Taber

I have just come in from the garden, where I have managed to spend a few hours in the last 10 days — not enough hours, but some, nonetheless. For my grandmother, I planted evening-scented stocks (lasting beauty in Kate Greenaway’s The Victorian Language of Flowers). Their scent takes me back to Nannie’s garden long ago, where we talked endlessly while I watered her flowers and crunched carrots I’d rinsed under the hose.

I remember my godmother in the prairie crocuses (cheerfulness). Their vivid purple takes me back to Fort Macleod, and summers spent weeding her garden, stuffing myself with raspberries, then spending long afternoons with friends exploring willow-hidden creeks and brown coulees.

And as I planted the heliotrope today, I remembered why each year it has a place in one of my pots. There is a line in Act I of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town where Julia Gibbs says to her husband, “Come out and smell the heliotrope in the moonlight.” Each time I smell it, I remember the girl who played Julia, and the other members of that long-ago production I directed.

Vividly I recall Jayne’s intensity as she delivered Emily’s goodbye speech.Part of why I love this play is that Wilder also thought gardens were important. As she leaves the world, Emily says,
Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners …Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you . . .. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?
Thornton Wilder, Our Town, Act III

An Arabian proverb says, “A book is a garden carried in the pocket.” My garden links me not only to people I love, but to much-loved books as well. In addition to heliotrope (devotion and faithfulness), I have rosemary for remembrance (Shakespeare’s Ophelia in Hamlet, IV, 5) and savoury and thyme for Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book The Secret Garden. Each year I plant pansies — love-in-idleness for Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the scent and colour of my garden lies much of my history.

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) Roman statesman, scholar, orator

My library is my garden at school. Like gardens, libraries nourish and delight. They nurture budding intellects, and link us to people and events in our present and in our past. And, like gardens, libraries need constant care and replenishment.

It is the end of the year, and we’re preparing the library for inventory, and for a major renovation next year. At the moment this means weeding. I like to weed. It means spending hands-on time in places I love to be. I take pleasure in the rewards of previous years’ hard work. I get to know again each nook and cranny, each hidden or forgotten treasure. Weeding requires I think about every resource we have. Has it outlived its usefulness? Is it damaged beyond repair? Taking space needed for more fruitful things?

“More things grow in the garden than the gardener sows.”
Spanish Proverb

A friend cultivates a semi-wild area in her yard. Every time she digs out a weed, she replaces it with a plant she wants. This is, of course, what we librarians do as a matter of course, but it’s a simple and effective philosophy of life that I want to apply to my teaching and my life.

Over the coming summer I’ll be thinking about how to do that as I tend my other garden. My next project is to plant something for Ralph Waldo Emerson, who believed
To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a little better; whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is the meaning of success.