Bonding in the Broken Places
I have always believed that the most inspiring gift young adult literature has to offer is the opportunity to view the world through a sliding glass door. Regardless of where the door leads, there is always the promise of taking a walk in a different pair of shoes. As readers, youth are allowed to walk into the minds of individuals who may or may not be like them. Yet, many discover that there is a set of universal emotions that bonds all of us together. We all have the ability to experience joy, sorrow, love, uncertainty, success, and failure. Through problems and conflicts, literature allows young adults the catharsis for healing, rebuilding, and changing. Every individual has his or her own unique story, yet it is the impetus to survive that is the common thread for all of us.
I grew up in a middle class neighborhood in the suburbs of Chicago. My parents provided for me and attended my activities. My two older brothers encouraged me often. I had friends who supported my strengths; I excelled on sports teams where I felt accepted. Through music and church youth groups, I felt connected. In essence, I felt valued by those around me, surrounding me. No doubt about it, I was very fortunate.
In the first twenty-one years of my life, I had it all - or so I thought. In my senior of college, I had a break down. My subconscious mind had realized that I would soon be out on my own. My conscious mind had yet to accept this fact. All of my life I had depended on, counted on, and relied upon others to be there for me. I knew others valued me, yet I was too dependent on their judgment to make decisions for myself. I began experiencing terrifying anxiety attacks. At first I thought it was unfair. Why should I, a person who had it all, be suffering so much? Only weak people, or people with difficult circumstances, should have psychological problems. Not me!
Well, it took me two years to rebound …two years to overcome weaknesses … two years to expose the vulnerable places …and well over two years to strengthen the weak spots. However, through hardship, I emerged a much stronger individual. An individual who realized she needed to be an individual. It was crawling out of that deep, dark pit by myself that made me a survivor.
There are many survivors in our society, all from different walks of life. We find survivors of every age, of every ethnicity, and of every sex. They encompass every socioeconomic level, every familial unit, and every mental and/or physical capacity. The ramifications as well as the manifestations on the individuals will be different as well. What then is the quality that all survivors share? The one that comes to my mind is resilience - the "ability to bounce back from life's challenges by learning how to value adversity, face failure fearlessly, make misfortunes meaningful, and emerge from catastrophe stronger for the experience" (Hardy, February 1999).
In my own experience I know what led to my survival. However, it left me with a void that I wanted to fill. I wanted to know how others managed to survive, others with much more adverse circumstances than my own. This curiosity propelled me to my research on resiliency. I wanted to discover the common characteristics of young survivors. Through myriad readings, the following are the characteristics that resurfaced again and again:
- Support From a Parent or From a Significant Other - Resilient individuals usually have a relationship with at least one person who "truly cares about and respects that child as an individual" (Tarwater, 1993, p. 273). This allows the individual the "opportunity to express their feelings openly in a supportive and non judgmental atmosphere" (Grollman, 1995, p. 221). Feelings of positive recognition can be regenerative and often "act as protective factors that reduce risks amongst children living in disharmonious homes" (Ferguson, 1996, p. 282). The relationship provides a stable and consistent source of positive affirmation" (Baxley, 1993, p. 2).
- Problem Solving Skills - Resilient individuals "perceive their experiences constructively" (Tarwater, 1993, p. 272). They learn to face what has happened to them. By confronting and identifying their fears, they are able to "put them into perspective and allow them to diminish slowly while they focus on positive improvements" (Wright, 1997, p. 66).
- Autonomy - Resilient individuals often have "the ability to act independently and exert some control over one's environment; to have a sense of one's identity; and to detach from others engaged in risky or dysfunctional behaviors" (Berliner and Benard, 1995).
- Tenacity - Resilient individuals are "challenged to rebound from harm by experimenting, branching out, and developing their own resources. Over time, these selfprotective behaviors develop into lasting clusters of strength …" (Project Resilience, July 1998).
- Sense of Belonging - Resilient individuals find value in themselves if they feel they are contributing to a whole. Sometimes these endeavors are found in athletics or found in the arts. Whatever the affiliation, the activities provide an escape or provide a creative outlet. "Being a part of a community instills a sense of comfort, respect and self-esteem and makes young people willing to go beyond what they think is possible for themselves" (Channel One Network Educator's Guide, April 1998, p. 12).
The identification of these five characteristics led me to my final question: could I find examples of resilient youth in young adult novels? I began perusing young adult fiction with a passion hoping to find those very characters that employed great resiliency. The characters I found were survivors of grief, neglect, physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual molestation, dependency, poverty, handicapping conditions, and general anxiety. Despite their circumstances, however, I found myself identifying with many of the characters. It didn't seem to matter if the characters were living in an impoverished environment so unlike my own; their motivations still centered on persistence in the face of failure. I empathized with many of these characters, but I was most impressed with three novels in particular. My extensive search led me to three dynamic characters found in:Slam by Walter Dean MyersParty Girl by Lynne EwingHero by S.L. Rottman
Summary of SLAM
Slam is a book about making it in the inner city without self-destructing. Seventeen-year-old Greg "Slam" Harris is one slick ball player. When he's on the basketball court, he's got everything under control. Greg makes the team at Latimer, but not before getting off to a bad start with his coach. Earning respect in the hood is much easier than it is at his new school. Slam doesn't understand at first why he should show respect to others when they don't give him the same in return. His survival comes with the understanding that the game of life continues off the court.
Significant Others: In learning this new system of rules, Slam begins to listen to his assistant coach, Goldy. Though Slam's mother has always been in his corner, Goldy is the one who helps Slam put the pieces into perspective. Goldy knows that the head coach plays with Slam's mind, yet he also understands that Slam needs to become more of a team player. Goldy helps Slam earn the respect of the coach and teaches Slam what's important in life:"The only difference between on the court and off the court is that everyone is in the game off the court. You will play, and you will win or lose. There's nobody on the bench, nobody sitting it out. You're in it whether you want to be or not. A lot of people fool themselves and say they're just not going to play. Believe me, it don't work that way." (p. 218)
Problem Solving Skills: Slam has the ability to take in his dangerous surroundings in the hood. Confronting these fears, however, takes time. He sees the young boys already starting their hoop dreams. He sees the slick dudes on the corner on their way to a jail cell. He sees the empty cardboard houses on the roof. He sees the people drinking hard to forget their problems. He sees the cops spreading sheets over guys in the hallway. He sees the crack heads out in the rain. He sees his father not always getting real, and it scares him:"When something bothers me a lot I keep thinking about it, like I'm replaying a tape over and over. No matter what I do it stays in my heart." (p. 3)
All these things force Slam to analyze the maybe's and the could be's. It is actually through his girlfriend Mtisha, however, that he learns to face up to these fears. He learns that he can hide neither from his math book nor from the truth that is edging in on him. He must accept the fact that his best buddy Ice is dealing drugs. When Slam stops observing life through the viewfinder, he is able to step out with a telephoto lens. Yes, all of these things are real. Yes, they're touchable …tangible … Yes, he must react to them, and in many ways he must step away from them. Slam comes to the conclusion that he will play the game of life.
Autonomy: Slam's sense of control is positive on the basketball court. Even though Coach Nipper doesn't appreciate his "stylin'" on the court there is no doubt that people value Slam's basketball ability. The pain that Slam feels, however, is the detachment from his pal Ice. It hurts Slam so much to realize that he has stepped beyond his friend:"On the court I was good, maybe not as good as Ice, but I was getting there. I wondered how it would be to go up against him again. In my mind he was different, he had laid down when it was time to get up. He had his game, the same game I had, and I had thought the game would make us all right. It hadn't. What I wished was that things would stop for a while and maybe we could all catch a breath and check out the score or something. That wasn't happening. What was happening was that the clock was still running, like Goldy had said it would, and we had to keep on keeping on the best way we could." (p. 265)
Tenacity: Slam's stubbornness works against him in the beginning of the story. The more he allows the coach to get to him, the more he cheats himself. Slam finally learns to use his own persistence as a survival tool. Slam realizes that he's:"somebody too strong to be moved" (p. 266).
Sense of Belonging: Slam doesn't think much of the Latimer players when the season begins. Until he finds his place on the team, he'd rather play as a oneman show. What he discovers is that teamwork makes victory possible:"Goldy came up to me after the game and hugged me, the coach hugged me, teachers were hugging the whole team. It was like a fantasy trip." (p. 249)
Contributing to the team makes Slam feel like a whole person.
Summary of Party Girl
For Kata and Ana, survival is a nebulous term. When you live on 53rd Street in a neighborhood war zone, it's dangerous to feel safe. Kata doesn't have to face the future, though, when she's dancing. Dancing is her escape from the violence of the gang wars. When the music is pulsing and her best friend is beside her, Kata thinks she can handle anything that comes her way. But now Ana is gone, shot down by a rival gang, and Kata is lost. She used to protect Ana, and now she can't even protect herself. On a path toward self-destruction, Kata finally finds the courage to save herself. She must get out "of the life" to find where she really belongs.
Significant Others: Kata feels that her mother's love for the bottle is more powerful than her love for anyone else. With Ana's death, however, her mother begins showing the concern the Kata longed for when she was younger:"I felt like I was watching her ghost. I wished she had loved me enough to wait up for me, back when I still had a chance." (p. 68)
Still, her mother's renewed effort brings Nando back into Kata's life. Nando is a former boyfriend of her mother's. His love for Kata is unconditional. With Nando's support, Kata is given the opportunity to find faith again:"Maybe something good's coming in your future. Something you can't see yet because you're living too close to the earth …The heavens give us a measure of what God might be: large enough to hold a billion trillion stars." He drew me close to him, trying to guide my vision, until we were cheek to cheek, gazing at the night sky, his glasses pinching my temple. "Don't look at the earth for the center of life" he said. "If you look up at the night and see what's above you, a lot of things that bother you here aren't worth the fuss." (pp.108-109)
Problem Solving: Kata is insightful about the happenings in her neighborhood. Kids trading lunches in the first grade end up mortal enemies by the eighth. Girls planning weddings in the fourth grade are planning their funerals by the fifth. Guys who act the toughest are actually the weakest. She also understands the motivations of girls who deliberately get pregnant:In our neighborhood girls were happy when they got pregnant. Some even tried to get pregnant, putting holes in condoms or lying about taking the pill, so they could face out, quit the gang life, and collect their welfare. (p. 13)
However, although she understands it, Kata feels apart from it:Men and booze were the only way she forgot her sad, broken life. She had me when she was fifteen, and maybe that was the reason I stayed away from boys and didn't dream about babies the way the other girls did. I knew how bad it felt to have a mother who should have been an older sister. She told me my dad was shot in a drive-by. But I think she only said that so she could get her welfare and not bother him. (p. 52)
Autonomy: In the beginning Kata does not feel a sense of individuality. When Ana dies, Kata does not even know if she has an identity anymore:I didn't have a name without Ana to call it. It had taken the two of us to make one for so long that I wasn't sure I existed without Ana. (p.21)
But through the course of the novel, Kata begins to understand that she didn't know Ana as well as she thought. They were different, and Kata realizes that Ana took the cowardly way out. Eventually, Kata finds the courage to stand up to the gang leader and leave the gang:I glanced at the drops of blood and stopped, suddenly remembering Ana being carried to the ambulance. I looked up at Pocho, at the anger in his eyes. I had a choice. "I'm not going to fight anymore, Pocho," I said. "You want to hurt me because I know your story. You think killing me keeps your past hidden forever? You can't hide it from yourself." (p. 98)
Tenacity: Kata's strength of character is the single most important quality that leads to her survival. In the beginning her strength comes from her dancing:"We worked hard to build a big reputation. We practiced until our muscles felt like rubber and our feet throbbed, and then we practiced some more. Anything was possible if the music was right." (p. 10)
Sense of Belonging: Kata may have been a part of the gang, but she doesn't want to be owned like other gang members. Maybe this is why she is attracted to Kikicho. He is the oldest male in the gang, the only one who doesn't run fast, hit hard, and treat people badly. He is also the only one to recognize her real strength:"You got bigger plans than even you can see right now. And someday, no matter how much you love me, you'll have to leave me here," he said, his voice as soft and quiet as angel wings. "I used to want to ask you to take me with you, but I know I don't belong there, wherever it is. I belong here." I wondered what he saw in me that made him think I could ever get out of here. (p. 82)
In the long run, Kata discovers what Kikicho means. She finds where she belongs:I danced for a long time, the moon like a halo around me, and finally I could feel Ana beside me again. For only a moment I was with her in heaven, our feet reaching back urging waves across the ocean. Then Ana pulled away from me, her hands lingering on my face, then pushing me gently back to earth. The moon set and the darkness surrounded me, but still I danced, finding my place in this new music, waiting for the first rays of dawn to bathe me in a new light. (p. 110)
Summary of Hero
Fifteen-year-old Sean Parker has had it rough. His parents divorced when he was young, and he assumes his father does not care about him. His mother is an alcoholic who abuses Sean both physically and mentally. Sean's method of coping is to shut himself off from the world. After being picked up for a curfew violation, Sean is sent to a ranch for community service. At first he doesn't like the ranch owner, Mr. Hassler, because the man is strict, strong, and too structured. After a while, though, Sean begins to enjoy the responsibilities because they make him feel worthwhile. Sean eventually realizes that behind that gruff demeanor is a man who sincerely cares about him. As Sean begins to respect and admire Mr. Hassler, he realizes that his determination will lead him down the right road.
Significant Others: Dave Hassler offers Sean more acceptance in one week than Sean has ever experienced in his entire life. In the beginning Sean is unnerved by the rigidity of the ranch; it is so foreign to him. Eventually, though, that structure is what makes Sean feel safe and needed. Mr. Hassler proves to Sean that there are people looking out for him:"Milk and cookies? Oh, man, where were you when I was in first grade?" "Doesn't matter where I was. What matters is where I am." (p. 67)
Problem Solving: Sean is used to providing for himself. He eats on his own, makes his own rules, and stays out of the way of gangs trying to recruit him. He has figured a way to keep money hidden from this mother by planning alternative hiding places. Although he's miserable with his life, he understands why he has lived in this setting for so long:The possibility of life without my mother has always been in the corner of my mind, as kind of a fantasy, where I could be happy. But I had talked with a friend who had come back after a stint as a runaway, and I knew that my home, as bad as it was, was still a home, a place I could go, a place where I could usually find food. If my mother died, where would I go? It was the same question that had kept me lying to the social workers whenever they were called. (p. 72)
Autonomy: Sean has a real sense of his own identity. Proof of this is Sean's detachment from his old friend, Rick. Rick is so into his image of being tough and using drugs. Sean feels that Rick is no longer a real person:I honestly didn't understand why Rick was so amazing to some people. As far as I could tell, he was just a stupid biggang member wanna-be. He couldn't get in with the big gangs, so he had his own little gang that seemed to think they ran the school. I guess the big-time gang knew he was just a little pushover, like I did. What got me was the fact that no one else in our school seemed to have picked up on that. (p. 14)
Tenacity: For most of Sean's life, his sheer determination has been an effective coping mechanism for dealing with life's adversities. Now that he is older, however, that same stubbornness has kept Sean from reaching out for something better. Mr. Hassler teaches Sean how to look for opportunities by letting his determination become a positive asset again. Mr. Hassler recognizes a strength in Sean that reminds him of his own young adulthood:
People had been putting me down all my life because they could tell I could be something if I wanted to be. They didn't want me to succeed. That's why they made my life hell. If I could succeed where they didn't, then they were weaker than I was. So they tried to stop me.
Sean, a lot of people can tell you can succeed. Some of them will try to stop you now from even trying. Don't let them. Come back in twenty years and be able to buy you father's company. Don't sink into what they think you are."
I dropped my eyes to look at the floor. I didn't want Mr. Hassler to know how good that idea felt. I could do it. I could prove Mr. H. right and my mother and father wrong all at the same time …
This time I didn't even try to hold back a grin. Things were going to be okay. I could find the right track here. Mr. H. would help me stay there. (pp. 86-87)
Sense of Belonging: On the first night that Sean is on the ranch, one of the horses goes into premature labor. Sean is forced to help deliver a foal because the vet is not available. Although he is resistant at first, Sean becomes fascinated with the foal's entry into the world. The birth symbolizes a new beginning for Sean. Sean not only bonds with the colt but identifies with it as well; when the mare rejects her it reminds Sean of the way his own mother has always rejected him:He was shaking and covered with disgusting bloody slime. I didn't want to be in the same stall with him, let alone touch him. But he was begging me with his eyes. He was pleading for help. And I knew how much it hurt to ask for help and be denied. (p. 27)
Sean soon becomes very attached to the colt, Knicker. His relationship with the baby makes him feel needed and helps him find an inner strength:He looked more than just satisfied. He looked happy, content. We were both learning how to enjoy that feeling at the ranch. (p. 81)
A week later when the suggestion is made to try to put Knicker back with his mother, Sean admits his fear:"Once a mother hurts her child, she keeps doing it. Because it's easy and it makes her feel strong." I didn't mean to keep talking, but I couldn't shut up. "She doesn't care about him. She didn't before and she won't now. Don't make me go back. Please don't. You can't make him go back." (p. 58)
Besides caring for the foal, Sean also grows in his relationship with Mr. Hassler. It eventually becomes important to Sean to show how hard he can work.
When Mr. Hassler tells Sean a story about being labeled in his youth, Sean is one of the few people to really understand:
"I wasn't looking for money. I wanted to be …" He broke off, searching for the word.
"Respected? Understood? Accepted?"
"Yes," he said, nodding with a smile. "All of those." (p. 85)
Sean's new understanding of Mr. Hassler proves to be a true test of character. Near the end of the story, Sean makes the decision to put his own life on the line to save Mr. Hassler from a deadly situation. The man has been there for Sean, and Sean will be there for him.
ReferencesKathy Cline is a teacher of language arts at Black Hawk Jr. High School in Bettendorf, Iowa.
Baxley, Gladys B. "Building Resiliency in Youth: Imagine the Difference." (Paper was Developed for the National Conference "Imagine the Difference! Building Artistic Partnerships to Save Our Children", Washington, D.C.) March 1993.
Berliner, BethAnn and Bonnie Benard. "More Than a Message of Hope: A District Level Policymaker's Guide to Understanding Resiliency." (Sponsored by Western Regional Center for Drug-Free Schools and Communities, Portland OR.) 1995.
Channel One Network Educator's Guide. "Do Something Challenges Students to Build a Better Community," April 1998, p.12.
Ewing, Lynne. Party Girl. Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
Ferguson, David M. and Michael T. Lynskey. "Adolescent Resiliency to Family Adversity," Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, March 1996, Vol. 37. Issue 3, pp. 282-292.
Grollman, Earl A., ed. Bereaved Children and Teens: A Support Guide for Parents and Professionals. Beacon Press, 1995.
Myers, Walter Dean. Slam. Scholastic, 1996.
Rottman, S. L. Hero. Peachtree, 1997.
Tarwater, Patricia. "Glass, Plastic, or Steel?" Childhood Education, 1993, Vol. 69. Issue 5, pp. 272-273.
Wright, Norman H. Resilience, Servant Publications, 1997.
Reference Citation: Cline, Kathy. (2001) "Bonding in the Broken Places." The ALAN Review, Volume 28, Number 2, p. 46.