Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Goodbye Stranger

Confession: I did not go to a public middle school.  A lot of what I know about middle school (or real middle school, as I call it) has been gleaned from my little brother's experience as well as anecdotes told by my teacher friends.  Also the internet, but that's always to be taken with a truckload of salt.

In a way, I was extraordinarily lucky to have missed a lot of what happens in middle school: old friendships fall apart, boys go from gross to OMGHOT, and hormones happen.  My "middle school" consisted of me, another girl, and another boy, both of whom I'd known for a very long time.  We were at a very small private school.  I am very glad that I went to public high school, though.  It taught me a lot of things, mostly about how to act around other people.  Yeah, I learned academic stuff too, but it was so regimented that I really only learned when I got to college and was able to question what I was being taught.  But that's a tangent I'll nip in the bud.

But however small your middle school was, or however insular it was, you still have to go through the painful, icky parts of adolescence.  I started wearing a bra in the fourth grade and got wacky hormonal on our sixth grade trip to St. Louis (funny how massive life events sometimes align that way).  I was the rounded, chubby girl while my classmate remained boyish and tall.  I avoided going to gym because I had no idea how to find a proper sports bra and it was ow-painful to run around.  I flung myself into myriad re-watchings and re-readings of Pride and Prejudice with the earnest single-mindedness so peculiar to the tween fan.  Believing that I'd never be pretty or thin enough to get married, I ate my feelings.  I'd rent P&P from Blockbuster over and over again and eat powdered Kool-Aid mix right from the tub.  I had the worst relationship with food but I didn't realize it until my junior year of high school.

See, the other part of this is that I was two years younger than everyone else in my grade.  A combo of a summer birthday and my mom starting me in first grade at five (I knew how to read already, so why do kindergarten?) had me significantly behind in the whole development thing, but I pretended that I was older than I really was inside.  Inside I was still a kid, but I was trying to deal with people dating and relationship drama and friendship drama and all I wanted to do was sing bad karaoke with my friends.

So, yeah, I didn't go to a giant middle school with cliques and horrid teachers and stuff, but I still had to work through that awful phase.  Rebecca Stead opens a window onto middle school life with her extraordinary Goodbye Stranger, and I cried, not just because Stead always moves me, but because kids have to deal with so much crap.  So much.


As a girl, Bridget was hit by a car while skating with her friend.  After her miraculous recovery, she decided to rename herself "Bridge" and do things her way, trying to figure out if there was indeed a greater purpose to her life that she needed to fulfill.  A few weeks into seventh grade, Bridge decides to start wearing cat ears.  Why?  Why not?  People think she's weird, that Bridget Barsamian.

The chapters chonicling Bridget's tumultous year seven alternate with those of an unnamed girl who's experiencing extreme guilt.  She skips school and wanders around New York City, eventually ending up at a coffee shop owned by one Mr. Barsamian (connctions...).  In her chapters, we learn that she has a toxic friend with whom she's been friends forever, but who has lately changed into a nasty person.  Our mysterious narrator has done something unspeakably bad due to the influence of this friend.

Bridge's best friends are Em (Emily) and Tab (Tabitha), who have made a solemn pact over a Twinkie (that's about as binding as you can get, as Twinkies Never Die) to never, ever fight.  Em's dealing with the repercussions of "getting curves" and the attention that draws from boys.  She starts getting texts from a guy on the boys soccer team, which escalates really fast.  Suddenly, Em's the school slut. Meanwhile, Tab nags Em for her new relationship and Bridge has to try to balance the two and her new teachers and her identity.

There was one particularly potent passage (sorry, alliteration is a symptom of librarianship) relating to how society views women's bodies as inherently sexual and tempting.  Victims of poor school heating (been there, done that), the kids wear summer clothes during the winter to survive the heaters that run full force.  After winter vacation, Em shows up in a tatty green sweatshirt and bursts into tears.  She explains, " 'They said ... I have to wear this stupid sweatshirt.  It's from the lost and found. They said'--she wiped her face with a fist--'my shirt was too revealing!' "  Em's spaghetti strap top was obviously just too much for the boys, decided school administrators.  And what better way to encourage self-loathing than to shame a girl for her body?  Unfortunately, this happens all the time.  A girl with large breasts is automatically a "slut."  The next day, the school sends out a copy of the dress code, which is pretty Draconian.  Em feels that it's her fault.  When Bridge points out that other girls wear spaghetti straps and don't get in trouble, Em responds, "The dress code isn't for them ... It's for people like me.  Bad girls."

At this point I wanted to throttle the (fictional) school administration, but I know I could walk into every middle school in this country and find the same double standard applied to girls and definitely not to guys.  And it sucks.  It rots.  It makes girls equate their bodies with "badness" and things just spiral out of control from there.  Good job, educators of America.

Lots of other things happen in Goodbye Stranger as well, but that was the point that resonated the most strongly with me.  You'll tear up at the ending as well, because you'll remember the time you too made an awful mistake that nothing, nothing could reverse or make better, and you just had to learn how to live with it and learn from it.

I sat down to just start this book and ended up glued to my couch until I could finish it.  Stead never fails to move me and make me think.  This is a must read, and for librarians and parents alike, a must-buy.


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