By Judy Berman
Living life on the fringes. Always feeling like you’re on the outside looking in.
That’s the theme of the novel, “The Outsiders,” by S.E. Hinton. It’s one I can relate to, and I’ve been out of school for a few decades. The book and the movie still resonate with readers today.
Elvis, The Beatles, leather jackets, D.A.’s greased-back haircuts and madras shirts. They evoke a different time – the early-‘60s. That was when America worried about a nuclear attack and building bomb shelters. We had not yet gotten involved in Vietnam and the flower children of the mid-1960s were still a few years away.
Many look at those times as being more innocent. But it had its share of troubles, too. Like the author, I had friends who were rich, as well as those who were poor and lived “on the other side of the tracks.” A few were “hoods” and, around me, they were great guys. I knew that neither life was problem-free.
S. E. Hinton wrote about the clash of those two groups. She was 15 and still in high school when she began writing her novel. It was published in 1967, when she was a freshman in college. She has said that the characters were not based on any one person she knew. Ponyboy, Johnny and Dally’s characters each had their own universal appeal, she said.
The movie, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, is one I’ve shown to my students the past several years. They see the PG version, although I prefer the PG-13 version because the story thread is much closer to the book.
“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” That’s Ponyboy Curtis’ opening line in the novel.
A few blocks later, Ponyboy is jumped by members of the Socs (or Socials, the rich kids). When he yells for help, his brothers and gang members of the Greasers, the hoods, rush to his defense.
Their next encounter is deadly. It forces Ponyboy and his friend, Johnny, to run away to avoid arrest. At one point, they’re focused on the countryside’s beauty and wish that scene could remain forever.
I recall a similar experience when I lived in the country. As I looked out our kitchen window, the whole countryside was awash in gold. Then, sadly, as the sun rose higher, the golden hues began to yield to nature’s green coloring. Ponyboy, in repeating lines from Robert Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay:”
“Nature’s first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf’s a flower; But only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day, Nothing gold can stay.”
When Johnny asks what it means, Ponyboy tells him that things cannot remain as they are.
Like the scene they witnessed, their innocence will slip away. What they’ve gone thru will transform them forever. Near the end of the book, Johnny told Ponyboy to “stay gold.”
Little has changed since the book was published in 1967. There are still cliques and those who are on the outside. Hopefully, as teens read this book and see the movie, they will see the harm that comes from stereotyping, from forming cliques, and how they view others who are not part of their group.
Ponyboy realized that just because he was poor didn’t mean he’d be stuck in that life. He was going to make something of himself. That’s an excellent observation. One that I hope my students take away from the story that Hinton crafted when she was a teen herself.
* Robert Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19977
* S.E. Hinton’s website: http://www.sehinton.com/
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