This post has been many weeks in the making. After I finished The Luminaries, I picked up Matthew Quick’s latest young adult novel, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. Quick wrote Silver Linings Playbook and also Boy 21, which I used quite a bit early in the school year with my students. I am trying to organize a way for students to do an author study, so I set off to find comparisons between the two titles. However, this turned into a theme study for myself, which has actually taken a lot out of me emotionally in the past few weeks. On the first page of this story, Leonard Peacock is taking a picture of his breakfast and a gun, and we learn he is planning on killing one of his classmates and then himself later that day.
Just like I teach my students, I need to take to writing to make sense of what I’ve been reading lately. This will be the first post in a series that focuses on how teenage violence is portrayed in literature.
I am incredibly liberal when it comes to kids reading what they want to read, especially my Brooklyn 8th graders who are not sheltered from life’s truths. What I love about most young adult literature, and why I think it is unhealthy for teenagers to jump straight into a diet of adult books and classics when they enter high school at 14, is that most young adult authors respect, love, and honor teenagers and their experiences. These authors are courageous in going to the places that many teens are scared to bring to their parents. These authors understand social-emotional development and their books often feel like therapy. Their protagonists deal with real issues in real ways and generally find genuine, realistic resolution: peace, an ability to move forward, an understanding of change. These authors haven’t forgotten the pain, anger, and intensity of what it feels like to be an adolescent. When kids skip straight to books with adult characters, they miss out on so many healthy learning experiences.
However, as I continued to read Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, I felt more and more uncomfortable. For an adult, I consider that a good thing: our reading should rattle us sometimes and force us to consider perspectives and experiences we would not otherwise encounter. And actually, for young adults, I think this holds true most of the time, which is why I encourage my students to read books about people who are different from them. But there was something deeply unsettling about this 17 year old character that made me stop and ask: are my 13 year old students ready for this?
Quick’s story telling does not shy away from harsh realities of our overly imperfect world: Leonard’s parents are non-existent, which has left enormous scars and every time he allows himself to hope for understanding from his mother, she disappoints him again. He was abused by a peer. The ending of the story has hope, but it’s not completely resolved and feels like a harsh (yet healthy) coming-of-age realization. Quick does provide two adults who support and understand Leonard, in the form of an elderly neighbor with whom he watches old films and his social studies teacher. These relationships also offer sound (not saccharin) advice to any teenager struggling with suicidal tendencies. I’m wondering if my uncomfortableness with the story comes from myself not fully realizing the depth of pain teenagers can face–and perhaps me wanting to think none of my 8th graders have reached this level yet–though, I know for a fact that’s not true. And once I remember that fact, my uneasiness with the title makes me think that some teenagers need this story.
What I also realized, though, is that adults need this story, too–more so perhaps, than the page turning series that are so easy to devour (which also are important to read when you work with or have teenagers). Quick’s book is hard to read, and that is why we must. Leonard Peacock’s opinions about adults–surprisingly nuanced and mature–are the kinds of reminders adults need:
(Re: Vice Principal) Vice Principal Torres’s face starts to turn eggplant purple as he says, “I don’t have time for double talk this morning, Leonard.” …I was really trying to make a connection. I would have talked with him openly and honestly–no double talk at all–if he would have just sat down and taken a few minutes to be human. What’s so important that he couldn’t take five minutes to look up at the sky with me? (37)
(Re: Mother) Show me its possible to be an adult and be happy. Please (46).
(Re: School Counselor) Deep down she absolutely knows I’m bullshitting her, I’m sure of it. But she has a million problems to solve, hundreds of students who need her help, endless asshole parents to deal with, mountains of paperwork, meetings in that awful room with the round table and the window air-conditioning unit over the tropically hot boiler room, and so she knows the easiest thing to do is believe me. She’s fulfilled her obligation, assuaged her conscience by finding me in the hallway and giving me the chance to freak out, and I’ve played my role too, by remaining calm, pretending to be okay, and therefore giving her permission to cross me off her things-to-do-list (97).
These quotes make me wonder if the title is actually coming from the voice of his peer-abuser or from the adults who didn’t notice what was happening.
So, I am left thinking about a few things at this point. First, teenagers face incredible pain and as uncomfortable as some of the topics may be, books are part of the solution. Moreover, they need adults who can model how to be human in all its glory and hardship: how to be genuine with our emotions, have meaningful relationships, and how to find joy amidst the struggle.