The Outsiders (published April 24, 1967) has its 50th anniversary this month. Author S.E. Hinton (Susan Eloise) was a high school student when it appeared, and teens and tweens surely account for much of the book’s 15+ million in estimated sales. Laurie Lichtenstein, a middle school English and Social Studies teacher in the northern suburbs of New York City, reflects on the book’s half-century hold on the adolescent mind and heart.
I teach one classroom novel a year and finding a book with wide appeal – one that will be adored by girls, boys, reluctant readers and dystopian devotees – is no small feat. There are many masterful works that I could read with my students, but I keep returning to a 50-year-old novel, written by a first time author when she was only fifteen.
Are you with me? If you teach middle school English, you probably are. The Outsiders, SE Hinton’s classic novel about a gang of boys growing up on the wrong side of the tracks, still attracts the 12-14 year old a half century after it was written.
I still remember the love affair I had with Ponyboy and the Greasers when I met them in 1983, and each year it is a thrill to revisit the gang. The story hasn’t changed, of course, but The Outsiders has infinite possibilities for teaching.
I love the kids’ reactions
This year I focused on the theme of family. Last year, we examined the idea of the hero. I haven’t repeated a set of lessons for the book in about a decade. I love the flexibility, but the real allure is the kids’ reaction.
Three years ago, the kids played Greasers and Socs at recess. Last year, spontaneous applause erupted when we hit the last page. Netflix was abandoned on weekend sleepovers to watch the 1983 movie version of the book.
This year, however, I really began to understand the impact the book has on students as seventh graders in several surrounding communities were reading the book simultaneously. I warned my classes not to discuss it with friends from other schools. The secrets of the Greasers deserve to be discovered by each and every reader.
But the beans were spilled at karate, swim, and even by a well meaning Rabbi who mixed the teachings of the Torah with the teachings of The Outsiders in his Hebrew School class before he knew my school was only on Chapter 7. The kids arrived the next day devastated.
The Outsiders had become a county-wide craze. A book discussed at dinner and dance class…a seventh grade rite of passage.
Middle grades bibliotherapy
At the most simplistic level, a plot complete with rumbles and rescues from burning buildings holds their attention. But dig deeper and you will find the characters have a wide, almost universal, appeal.
Although there is a dearth of females in the book, girls appreciate Pony and Johnny’s deep friendship and sensitive natures. For boys, the Greasers are role models. Pony is an intellectual, but he is tough, or “tuff” as Hinton describes, defying stereotypes and making it cool to be smart.
Pony’s brother Darry, a high school football hero, has stepped up to the plate and assumed the responsibility of raising his younger brothers. And Johnny is a survivor. The themes speak to kids as well. Early adolescents are beginning to separate from their parents and identify with the Greasers, who make family out of friends.
7th graders are always outsiders
But the reason the book has endured is even more personal. Seventh graders all feel like outsiders. No one is comfortable in his or her skin in seventh grade, the middle of the middle.
Someone always stands lonely in the cafeteria, or doesn’t get invited to a party. A girl wears the wrong pair of boots. They want so badly to blend in, to feel accepted. But this brass ring is forever out of grasp. Even the most popular of kids…the ones who seem to have it all together…who wear the right jeans and sit at the cool table during lunch…feel fragile.
The lesson learned from The Outsiders is that, as Cherry, a wealthy Soc, tells Pony the poor orphan: “Things are rough all over.” Translation: We all have problems, no reason to be jealous here!
And when Pony asks Cherry “Can you see the sunset real good on the West side? You can see it on the East side too,” our students understand that jocks and theatre types, computer geeks and outcasts are all in this growing up thing together.
Everyone in the class cries when Johnny tells Pony to “stay gold.” They cry for the tragedy that claimed Johnny’s life, but also for the loss of their own childhoods.
Hearts and minds
But as they stumble through this awkward and turbulent phase of their lives, I feel good that I have introduced them to Pony and Johnny, Sodapop and Darry, who in turn have offered them an opportunity for introspection and perhaps a little bit of comfort in the fact that we are, in some way, all outsiders.
Laurie Lichtenstein has been teaching 7th and 8th grade English and Social Studies in Westchester County, NY for the better part of two decades. In whatever spare time she can scrounge up, she writes about education and parenting her three children. Her work can be seen in Motherwellmag.com, the Bedford Patch, and The Jewish Magazine. Her personal blog ThriceBlessed is mostly defunct but still alive in cyberspace and really funny, she says. You can follow her on Twitter @thriceblessed.