Thursday, February 13, 2014

Literature Tells Stories about Our Need to Belong

The need to belong sends guys and gals to bars in search of companionship. Sometimes it ends happily as it did for every character in Crazy, Stupid Love; sometimes it ends horribly as revealed in Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

One of Hollywood’s favorite stories about the human need to belong to someone or something is set in high school. The poor Gleeks of Glee, often doused in slushie or dropped into garbage bins, find an outlet for their talents and their hearts in McKinley’s glee club. Both in and out crowd members find each other and a measure of mutual admiration in The Breakfast Club.

Most high school dramedies recount the experiences of teenage angst, human suffering, and painful rites of passage. Poor, alone Charlie in Perks of Being a Wallflower, transplanted 
Cady Heron in Mean Girls, and free-spirited, empathic Olive in Easy A share one key character trait. Each is razor sharp, witty, and blessed with amazing parents. Their talent is intellect, and it sets them apart, but they are still desperate to fit in and absolutely unable to do so. Theirs is a classic and universal story.

Smart is not something with which we Americans are comfortable. We seem to prize calluses on our hands, dirt under our nails, and worn denim upon our backs more than the number of facts we can recite or books we’ve read. Charlie finds an outlet, a place to reside among a clever, older crowd consisting of damaged people, their hurts keen enough to inspire sympathy for Charlie, but large enough to discourage his own from being freely or fully expressed. Charlie exists at the edge of every room and almost chooses death after realizing the nature of a childhood trauma that weighs heavily upon his subconscious.

Gifted Cady hides her mathematical genius in order to appeal to a guy, and she manipulates friends and acquaintances alike in order to advance her own popularity. So desperate to belong, she transforms herself, trying on other people’s personae and values. Her parents’ faith in her wanes as does faith in herself until she embraces being on the fringes of the majority, at home among a minority of people not easily tolerated by that majority. 

Olive is a good student. She follows the rules, including one that requires students to structure their time in order to complete homework. She actually reads the novels assigned for English, the most recent one being The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. She also stumbles into a twenty-first century version of Hester Prynne’s story when Olive falls victim to peer pressure, first by confessing to a tryst that never actually took place and later, by a series of lies based upon her willingness to play the role of tart.

Initially, Olive likes the attention as much as Hester must have until her sin, a pregnancy, became evident. Then Hester and Olive are cast out. Hester must live apart and accept derision daily. Olive has no social group to catch her as she falls from grace. Both women grow reflective, and both learn to embrace their inner strengths. Neither continues to accept society’s judgment. Each finds her own peace and forgiveness within herself.

But authors and filmmakers seem to know the American high school is a place where “ignorant armies clash by night” (Arnold’s “Dover Beach") and day. They don’t allow us to believe that we’ve overcome forever. Threads of ostracism still bind us. If they did not, all that teen angst, all those struggles borne of insecurity, would be incomprehensible. The American high school, on television and film, still places kids on scaffolds for public derision.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” the works cited in this post.

Writing Challenge:

Tell the story of your own personal high school hell or of your struggle to belong at any age.