I grew up — or at least reached age 20 — in a small town in northeastern New Jersey, one in a huge cluster of back-to-back small towns that eventually backed into the Hudson River. I looked out my bedroom window, and down the hill was Teterboro Airport, and, on the not very distant horizon was the Manhattan skyline. The George Washington Bridge was to the left, and, out beyond the Meadowlands, pretty much straight ahead, the Empire State Building.
But New York didn’t hold much mystique — I mean, my father went there every single workday; and, by the time I was in high school, my friends and I went in on the bus whenever we wanted.
Despite the closeness of the city we were very much living a small town existence. The major events on the social calendar were high school football games and holiday parades. The teenagers, myself included, spent countless hours sitting on benches on the Boulevard, watching buses go by.
We drank a lot, we tormented each other — usually good-naturedly — about any possible failings we might have had: physical appearance, athletic ability, our parents and siblings, girls. And we were torn, at least I was, because part of me couldn’t wait to get out of there, and part of me never wanted to leave.
The music we listened to when we were together was almost exclusively hard rock. This was the middle 70s, so it was Led Zeppelin, Lou Reed, Edgar Winter. That was good music for a group of guys being rowdy and trying to be cool. But at home I’d listen to very different stuff. I found that I liked listening to words.
Let me take you back to my junior year in high school. Late February. I’d just turned 17, and I’d just gotten dumped — and embarrassed — by my first girlfriend. And I was facing a lot of pressures, mostly self-induced, all related in some way to self-definition.
I have three older brothers, and they’d all succeeded socially and athletically, which I hadn’t done yet. I hadn’t developed. And sports were huge in my town. I knew I had potential as a miler, but unfilled potential isn’t worth anything. And I knew I had to break out that track season, that spring, or I never would.
And I was starting to think about my future. I wasn’t doing very well in school because I wasn’t trying to. So here I was, just a little over a year away from finishing high school, wondering if I’d ever succeed at anything, scared that I’d not reach my goals in track, unsure whether I would ever, ever have another girlfriend, and totally confused about everything else.
So one day I was in the library at school, and my brother Bill was in there with headphones on listening to music. And he said, "You gotta listen to this guy," showing me the album. And I said, "Nah, I’ve heard him on the radio." And he said, "No, this is so much better than that stuff you hear on AM."
So I started listening, and reading the lyrics on the inside of the album cover, and I’m saying, "Wow. This guy knows exactly what it’s like to get dumped by a girl."
So I immediately bought a copy of the album, and then his other two. And even though it didn’t solve my problem, it was an incredible relief to hear someone else expressing the very same torments that I was going through.
It was Jim Croce, who had died in a plane crash about two months before I discovered his music. And it was the first music I can remember ever really listening to, rather than letting it just wash over me like the stuff I listened to with my friends.
Where I was mostly hanging out at this time was my friend Al’s house. Al had the whole attic of his parents’ house as his bedroom, and anybody who wanted to go there and listen to loud music was welcome. And it was not the kind of place I would ever bring a Jim Croce album. Or Harry Chapin or Bob Dylan. But that was the stuff I was listening to at home.
And I discovered that some of my friends, not all, but some, were listening to that sort of music at home, too.
Let me make it clear that none of us ever read anything, at least nothing that wasn’t printed on an album cover. I never heard of young adult literature until I started working in this field. I had no interest in — and no ability to comprehend — adult literature. So the words I heard — the words that got me through being a teenager — were the words of my friends; the words of a very small handful of adults — mostly coaches; and the lyrics I heard on records and tapes.
And suddenly I started writing.
My grandfather was an electrician in Kearny, New Jersey, all his working life. He used to give clients these tiny address books with Bauer Electric printed on the front. They were about the size of the bars of soap you get in hotel bathrooms. I had a bunch of them in my bedroom; and one night, when I was at a low point emotionally, I took one of those books and wrote in the smallest handwriting I could manage: "Joanne likes somebody else. But I don’t know what to do. She’s changed. I don’t know what to do."
Then I wrote, in script to distinguish it from my own printing, some lyrics from a Jim Croce song that expressed my emotions better than I could do myself. And just about every day, sometimes several times a day, for the next few years I wrote in those diaries.
And in almost every entry for the first few months, I used somebody else’s words in addition to my own to amplify what I was saying and feeling.
Most of the entries I wrote in the first few weeks were kind of depressing. It was almost all about wanting this girl back and not having any idea what life was going to be like without her.
I should explain this relationship I was pining over. This was a small town, but I’d spent sixteen years there without ever crossing paths with this girl. She’d gone to the Catholic school and lived on the other side of town.
But the summer before my junior year the two groups she and I hung out in started merging, and before too long — and after a fistfight with one of my very best friends — I started ending up with her once in a while. But I had no experience with girls, and I did not know what to do at all. I was afraid to hold her hand, and I had almost nothing to say. And it seemed that every time we were alone together, if I was walking her home from a football game or something, she would throw up.
Apparently I made her even more nervous than she made me.
So by about early October I broke up with her, mostly because I still didn’t know what to do. My explanation to her, and I said this with all tenderness and compassion, was "I’m just sick of you." I really didn’t mean it. I just thought that was a valid, understandable reason for breaking up with somebody. And I needed a valid reason, since I really didn’t have one.
To her credit she took it in the spirit I intended.
But I didn’t stop seeing her. In fact, our relationship got a lot better, a lot more relaxed. She stopped throwing up. And I continued to see her as much as before.
Then her two best friends convinced her that she shouldn’t be hanging around with me because I’d had my chance and I broke up with her. So she stopped hanging around with me. And she’d ignore me all day in school, and I’d be heartbroken, and I’d call her on the phone the second I got home from track practice. She’d be nice and we’d have some OK conversations, and then I’d track her down the next day at school and she’d ignore me again.
One of her good friends wrote the gossip column for the school paper. And one day I opened it up and the first line in it was: "RW [that’s me] leave me alone!"
I got the message. And that was the end of that.
I laugh about it now. I laugh about a lot of things I did when I was a teenager. And I laughed a lot then. But the pain of many, many situations was very real.
Everything piles up on you at 17.
There’s the conflict of wanting to exert your independence but having restrictions placed on you at every turn by parents and school. You worry about how you look, how you sound, about what others think of you. And your whole future is staring you in the face; it’s not way off somewhere anymore, it’s here, and you don’t have a clue what to do next.
I look back now and things like worrying about who liked me, or whether I’d ever amount to anything as an athlete, or whether I’d stagnate in that town, still wearing my letterman’s jacket when I was 30, those things seem trivial now. But they sure weren’t then.
And what got me through were my friends — just for being there and being fun, certainly not because they were sensitive or consoling, because they were not — and other people’s words.
So while I’m not out to preach to my readers, I do know what it’s like to be a mixed-up kid looking to find out who he is. And I also know that one of the most reassuring messages you can get at that age is not," Hey, keep your chin up, everything’s going to be all right," but instead to have a view on someone else’s experiences, some writer who survived something like this and came out OK.
That’s what got me through. Still does.
I hope my novel Wrestling Sturbridge helps at least a few kids get through. It follows one wrestling season — a little over three months — in the life of a high school wrestler in a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania, what Seventeen magazine described as the "bitty town of Sturbridge, PA."
Ben doesn’t have any older brothers, as I did, but he has three close friends who have moved ahead of him either socially or athletically or both. The four of them have been on the same track since junior high school, hanging around together and developing as wrestlers in a town where wrestling is everything.
And while the other three have emerged as stars — potential state champions even — Ben isn’t able to secure a place on the varsity. His coach sees him as nothing more than a workout partner for Al, who is the best of the bunch.
So Ben is facing a future that funnels kids from high school into factory work, a future he could possibly adjust to if he at least had a few moments of glory on the wrestling mat first. His father works at the cinder-block factory, as do most of his friends’ fathers; and the way out of that pattern is fuzzy and treacherous.
Expectations are not terribly high in Ben’s house or in town. Even the two men in town who’ve been state wrestling champions — which made them temporary kings of sorts — have both worked at the factory for a lot of years. Ben desperately wants to break the pattern, but he doesn’t know how to do it.
You may have read the children’s book roundup in The New Yorker that warned that books for kids these days have become "startlingly grim." Wrestling Sturbridge was described in that article as "excellent but despondent."
Certainly Ben’s circumstances are despondent, at least from the perspective of a 17-year-old. But I do think the book offers hope. It is not a template for a better life, but I believe strongly that Ben emerges with the tools to rise above his situation. I think, I hope, that it is an uplifting novel. And I hope it will reach the kids out there who are in need of a lift.
Rich Wallace delivered this speech at the 1996 ALAN Workshop in Chicago. His latest novel is Shots on Goal.
Copyright 1998. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.
Reference Citation: Wallace, Rich (1998). Someone else’s words The ALAN Review , Volume 25, Number 2, 5-7.