Reading Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock led me to begin a study of how violence is portrayed in young adult books, which has made for a dark reading month, to be honest. But in the same way that I said in my previous post, it has made me really consider the kind of adult I want to be with my students everyday. Teaching 8th grade can feel like a roller coaster, but getting inside the minds of these protagonists is one of the best reminders of the struggles many of my students silently face and helps me remember the big picture in moments when it would be easy to let my anger, annoyance, or eye rolls reign.
The next one book I read was Hate List by Jennifer Brown, which is a story about a school shooting that leaves 6 students dead and many wounded. The protagonist is Valerie, the girlfriend of the shooter, Nick, who was ignorant of his plan to kill, but implicated because she started a list of people they hated and Nick used it to pick his victims. In the story, Valerie jumped up to Nick when he was shooting and inadvertently saved a girl who had harassed her. Valerie took that bullet in her thigh and afterward Nick shot himself in the head. The entire school wonders if Valerie was a hero or if it was a murder-suicide gone wrong. The novel is Valerie’s story as she goes back to school for her senior year five months after the shooting.
Brown intersperses present day (Valerie’s family life, therapy sessions, loneliness) with flashbacks from relationship with Nick (how Valerie had a place to feel understood and happy) as well as newspaper articles published about the shooting. What I appreciate here is that young adult readers are able to really get inside the mind of the complex emotions that Valerie faces–guilt or whether her actions helped cause the tragedy, anger at Nick for not being upfront with her about it, losing Nick. The combination continually asks the reader to consider perspective and how things appear don’t always tell the whole story, and this is what teenagers (and adults) must remember:
“People do it all the time–assume that they “know” what’s going on in someone else’s head. That’s impossible. And to think it’s possible is a mistake. A really big mistake. A life-ruining one if you’re not careful.” This quote from the story can be applicable to every character of the book–and every reader: Valerie didn’t know what was going on in Nick’s head, the kids who constantly made fun of them had no idea what was going on in either one of their heads, the parents didn’t know, the teachers didn’t know. I wonder if what we can take away from this is that we must take the time to know people and their stories, which for me is what it always come back to–the importance of story. Teenage culture is a complex beast and there is no way to treat its darkness with simple adages. So again, I am left thinking:
Teenagers need this book.
Teenagers need reading experiences that will let them talk about this book and push them to grow as people.
Teenagers need adults who can read these books, enter into the conversations with them, and to remember that all is not as it seems.
So, Brown takes the adolescent reader through the pain, necessity, and reality of moving forward. She also takes me back to what Leonard Peacock said: “show me that it’s possible to be an adult and be happy.” At the end of the day, I feel a responsibility to offer students the possibility of hope.