Very often when I’m figuring out what to teach, I find myself going outside of the classroom English textbook. In this feature, I take a look at those reading selections.
As I sat down to type this post, I took a glance at the italicized intro that I’ve got at the top of the screen there and realized that this entry is a bit of a cheat because it does come from an English textbook. However, it doesn’t come from the English textbook that my school district purchased for the 10th grade, so it counts as “outside” the textbook.
Anyway, “Teenage Wasteland” is a story written by Anne Tyler in the 1970s that takes place in what I guess you could have referred to as a “normal” suburban community and features what for the time would have been considered an “average, normal family” of two parents and two kids: Daisy and Matt and their two children, Donny and Amanda, who both attend private school. Donny is currently in high school and has been getting into trouble as of late, which is the source of an enormous amount of consternation for Daisy, who can’t understand why her son’s grades are slipping and constantly blames herself. Eventually, in an effort to solve the problem, Daisy hires a tutor named Cal, who doesn’t seem to tutor and instead allows a group of kids to hang out around his house and tries to dictate what the school and Donny’s parents should do and doesn’t seem to be concerned that Donny’s grades slip even further. Eventually, Donny gets expelled because beer is found in his locker and while Cal tries to get him to fight the system, Daisy decides she’s had enough and puts him in public school. Soon after, Donny runs away and the story ends with the feeling that the family is broken in some wayer is known for having a realistic approach to the portrayal of a family (I recently read her novel A Spool of Blue Thread, which was very good) and because the plot is easy to follow and the characters are vivid, this story is a good example of how stories can seem simple yet be much more complex or nuanced. My students find each of the characters easy to identify because they are not an extraordinary family in any way; furthermore, by making them be a middle/upper-middle class suburban family, Tyler avoids any conflict that the parents may have regarding money and allows for the plot detail that Donny has been through more than one private school (which I am sure is a subtle nod to another troubled teenage protagonist, Holden Caulfield).
It’s all “ordinary” in the same way that the Judith Guest’s Jarrett Family are the titular Ordinary People, and that was important at the time because there was a sense (and still is) that “these problems” “don’t happen here,” meaning that bad things don’t happen to people in “nice” neighborhoods. Crime and the crime brought about by certain drugs is the problem for places you’d see on the news and drinking, smoking and pot … well, that’s not a problem, it’s just kids being kids.
So Donny runs away and in order to figure out how and why this happens, my students and I do two things. First, we do a character analysis of all five of the characters featured in the story–although to be honest, Donny’s sister, Amanda, is mentioned in passing a few times and rarely, if ever, actually appears, but the fact that she’s constantly ignored is important. I like the idea of a character-driven story and how you can look at the same events through the eyes of four or five different people, and that allows us to gather the information we need to do the second thing, which is figuring out who’s responsible.
Granted, assigning blame isn’t a hard thing for anyone to do in our culture–I think that half of the content on the internet is devoted to blaming someone for something–but there’s assigning blame and there’s determining responsibility and the latter is a much more informed decision. After the class has described and discussed each of the characters, working through their strengths and weaknesses, I then ask the question: “Who is responsible for Donny’s running away?” Over the course of our discussion see how Donny, both of his parents, Cal, and “the system” are all responsible for what happens to the kid. Donny never takes responsibility for his own actions, Daisy is wildly inconsistent when it comes to disciplining her son, Matt really does nothing and basically figures his wife is going to take care of it, Cal is manipulative and seems more concerned with himself, and the system itself can be more punitive than it has to be.
This has, in the past, led to conversations about what makes a good parent, what makes a good teacher or principal, and whether or not kids who get in trouble should be punished for what they do. And to their credit, my students have very often presented a balanced view and are able to discuss when I push back on some of their points. There’s a lot to glean from Tyler’s story about how characters can be complex as well as how certain problems can be nuanced and have no easy solution.
Tyler’s stories have never been collected in a single volume and like I said, I got this out of a random English textbook in our book room, but I did find a .pdf copy online. It’s not exactly “legal” but if you’re interested in reading it you, can read it here: “Teenage Wasteland”