One of my favorite units in advanced English is a study of essays and short stories that centers around the concept of identity, and among those pieces are at least a few that deal with the universal theme of coming of age and more specifically the struggle that someone can go through during middle and high school. I’ve written about it before, so I won’t get into the content of the literature, but what I have noticed is the reaction that some of my students have to some of the characters we’re looking at.
Angela Chase, the protagonist of My So-Called Life, is one who seems to get the most interesting comments, especially when I ask my students what they like or dislike about her. Some find her to be an honest character and someone who seems much like someone that they might know. Others don’t seem to like her because of thew ay that she is disrespectful to her parents, especially her mother, and how she seems to drop her beset friend, Sharon Cherski, for the way-more-exciting Rayanne Graf. Some also don’t feel as if they can identify with her or her problems.
Now, I don’t expect every single person in the room to connect with a character from a television show that was on the air nearly 25 years ago, but as I was considering their responses, I also had to consider who was saying them. Most of the students were popular. In fact, when we were talking about other works where people expressed their battles with self-consciousness and even anxiety, those same people had a lot to say, much of which were pat responses about being true to oneself. I facilitated the discussion and stayed as neutral as possible, but the netire time, I was thinking, “It’s easy when you’re popular.”
I am generalizing here, of course, and the responses I get from my classes vary year-to-year. In fact, the previous paragraph describes last year’s class because I literally wrote a draft of this post a year ago and am just now getting around to typing it up, and the discussion in this year’s class was more stilted and borderline unresponsive (cell phones proved more exciting). But the idea of an identity crisis to someone who fits right in with a school culture that values participation in sports and (often) heteronormative conservative values is probably a foreign concept. So the idea that a main character who would stop talking to her friend because she doesn’t know who she wants to be is also going to be foreign.
Meanwhile, there is someone else in the room who may be looking at her and saying, “I get that.” Sometimes, those students have something to say as a counter point; sometimes, I will bust in with an “old man Panarese” anecdote where I talk about identifying with Brian Krakow, the show’s nerdy neighbor.
It’s only so effective, to be honest, and over the years, I have felt like the popular students, or at least the extroverted ones always try to dominate the converastion. And while I would never try and prove them wrong, I want t0 hear sometime else … something that doesn’t come from an overconfident cheerleader.