This is an essay by Susan McKinney de Ortega.
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton has everything – good-looking bad boys, opposing groups who really aren’t as different as they think, fierce brotherly love, gang loyalty, underprivileged kids perceived as trouble, rich kids perceived as trouble, action, love, violence, death, heroism, sacrifice, and, oh yes, hot chicks.
The novel was first published in 1967 by Viking Press, authored by high schooler S.E. Hinton. She was famously asked not to use her real name and reveal that the story of rival boy gangs in an Oklahoma town was written by a girl.
The Outsiders is the favorite book of all the middle school English classes I have ever taught – just the other day a dog-eared copy surfaced at my house from my 2006 class, inscribed inside the front cover Mine, Not Yours, Luis Eduardo Flores. Perhaps a return visit or a first time look at this drama about a group of sensitive kids misunderstood by the established community will remind adults of why we read in the first place – for pleasure.
I live in Mexico, and my middle school classes are made up of Spanish-speaking Mexican students who have mastered enough English to enter Advanced, where Miss Sue makes them read literature and write essays. In September, the kids begin To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Halfway into chapter one, they fidget, slump in their chairs, try reading from a face-on-the-desk position.
“This is a great book,” I tell them.
“It’s about little kids,” they complain. “It’s boring.”
In November, I pass out The Outsiders. They open the book, expecting little. But by page 5, Ponyboy has been jumped by a group of rich kids with knives. “How’d you like that haircut to start just below the chin?” one of them says. Then it’s a full-on rumble. In my room, the only sound heard is the clock ticking toward 3 pm. For once, the students aren’t looking at it.
S.E Hinton wanted to write a realistic book about genuine teenagers who had more on their minds than going to the prom. Year after year, my kids connect because The Outsiders is about them. In one of my classes, there was a boy who wrote a beautiful essay about his medallion being the only thing he has by which to remember his father, who was killed in a cartel clash. Another boy’s attorney father battled drug use. Another lived only with his brother – his mother had taken off for Columbia with a boyfriend, and his father had found a new family too.
In the novel, three brothers live without parents, fearing that Social Services will split them up. When Johnny’s father is in the mood to whack him or his mother around, he sleeps in the park. Dallas Winston carries a loaded pistol and has done time in jail.
There are the Greasers, from the wrong side of the tracks and the Socs, the socially privileged kids. In San Miguel, if you’re not a Fresa, you’re a Cholo. When I was in school, it was the Jocks and the Stoners. My teens immediately related to the distrust between the groups. My own girls read the book some five years and still post on Facebook, “Stay gold, Ponyboy.”
The novel is also about us. Beyond adolescence, we group and measure ourselves as well. The Golfers vs. The Bowlers, The Lawyers vs. The Street Cleaners, The Person in the Big Office/Big House vs. The Person in the Little Office/Little House. Even reluctant adult readers will be drawn in by the clash of the haves and have-nots, and what the teenagers in The Outsiders learn about each other and themselves.
Maybe I stayed in teaching for half a dozen years so I could read The Outsiders each fall. After all, who can resist reading beyond a first line like this: “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.”
Susan McKinney de Ortega is a Philadelphia-born writer living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico since 1992. Selections from her memoir, Flirting in Spanish, What Mexico taught me about love, living and forgiveness (Antaeus, 2011) are included in Mexico: A Love Story (Seal Press, 2006) and Not What I Expected, The Unpredictable Road from Womanhood to Motherhood (Paycock Press, 2007) and and Salon Magazine (www.salon.com, 1999).
McKinney writes about raising a bicultural family with her Mexican husband in One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk about Polyamory, Househusbandry, Mixed Marriage, Open Adoption and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love, edited by Rebecca Walker (Riverhead, 2009).
McKinney is the director/instructor of the Teen Writers Workshop, part of the San Miguel Writers Conference in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.