Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Stargirl -- commentary

We teach from stories in school because through stories we pass on cultural values. With this in mind, I just introduced my seventh graders to my all time favorite girl in adolescent literature, Stargirl, which is also the title of the book in which she stars as the main character.

Stargirl, born Susan but self named Stargirl, is an eccentric teenager who has been home schooled but is trying her luck at the public schooling in Mica, Arizona, a fictional place.

Her eccentricities include things like researching student birthdays and then going to them in the cafeteria on their birthdays and singing happy birthday, as she accompanies herself on the ukulele.

She wears pioneer dresses and carries a large hand bag with a huge flower on it. In each class, she takes a cloth from her hand bag, covers her desk and then takes out a vase to place on the cloth and a flower to put in it.

At first, the kids don’t know what to make of her. In time they recruit her as a cheer leader; however, she has a disturbing practice of cheering for every basket no matter which team makes it. Her philosophy is that we should all celebrate everyone’s happiness not just our own.

In time Stargirl’s exuberance infuses a new sense of school spirit where none existed before. This school spirit leads to a winning basketball season, something that hasn’t happened before.

As the team begins to win, the students learn to boo and hate, rather than celebrate the other team’s success. They don’t realize that Stargirl is the well from which this new school spirit has sprung and they soon turn on her.

Stargirl also has a habit of befriending every misfit, grieving, or in some way troubled person in town. She learns who these people are by reading the things in the paper over looked by most people: hospital admissions, obituaries, society pages, and fillers. Just as she celebrates other’s joy, she feels other’s sadness and responds by sending cards or leaving anonymous gifts.

During her brief period of acceptance, she becomes the girlfriend of Leo, one of the popular kids and it appears to be as close to true love as teenagers experience.

As Stargirl’s acceptance wanes, Leo faces having to choose between her and his own popularity because the kids have begun to shun her. They won’t sit with her in the cafeteria, talk to her in the halls or have anything to do with her. And when Leo is with her, they treat him the same way.

I am fond of asking the kids how they think Stargirl would fare at fare at their school. Mostly the kids self perception is that they are very tolerant of people who are different and they often see themselves as highly individualistic.

The reality is that in most schools where I have taught, there is a fairly narrow bank of acceptance. Students will allow for some individuality, but it doesn’t take much to be an outcast.

Stargirl is really about two things: Having the courage to make the right decision even if you must stand alone, and the acceptance of those who are different either by choice or by things
beyond their control.

As I think about Stargirl, I’m reminded of the quote, “Everyone is born an original and dies a copy.” I don’t know the source of the quote, but Stargirl’s challenge is to maintain her originality. In an effort to keep her relationship with Leo, she tries for a brief period of time to become like all the other kids, but it doesn’t work. She is a great original but not a very good copy.

Many things work against our retaining our originality. Schools want to us to conform to the ideal of a model student. Many churches are great for turning us into copies. Governments often have an image to which we are to conform as seen in regulations they adopt for the many social programs they sponsor. And above all, advertisers try their best to make us into copies. If we want to be part of the in group, we must wear this brand or have this product. A father told me recently he had a pair of Wal-Mart brand jeans hanging on his son’s door to remind the boy if he didn’t get his grades up he will have to wear them to school. The implication being that this would not be cool. This doesn’t end with jeans; it includes cell phones, jewelry, make up, shoes and so much more. And, then there is peer pressure.

To my relief, Stargirl reverted back to the original. She loved Leo, but she couldn’t pretend to be somebody she wasn’t. Our challenge, as adults, is to rediscover the original us, reclaim it, and celebrate who we really are.

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