by REBECCA, May 13, 2013
We all have our ethical coming out stories—the moment we came to knowledge about what we thought was wrong or right or necessary in the world; often we have many of them. For 11-year-old me, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders provided one such moment. But, really, if I look back at The Outsiders, it’s startling how many of the lessons I would need to learn (again and again) are there. Which makes me pat my 11-year-old self on the back and say, “oh, well-spotted, young squire.” (Yeah, sometimes I like to call myself “squire”; don’t make a big deal out of it.)
All I Really Need To Know I Learned From The Outsiders
1. “Things are rough all over.” Cherry Valance says this to Ponyboy in response to his notion that Socs all have perfect lives, and, while it is totally clear that things are not as rough for the Socs, this is something that I would do well to remember, both in moments of feeling like my own shit isn’t bad enough to deserve others’ attention, and in moments of feeling bitter about people complaining about things that seem not-so-bad to me.
2. “I lie to myself all the time. But I never believe me.” Ponyboy is trying to convince himself that he doesn’t care if his brother hates him (which, of course, Darry doesn’t). Being able to be honest with yourself, even—perhaps especially if—you can’t be honest about yourself or to others is An Important Thing. Knowing what you want, even if you can’t have it right now; knowing who you are, even if you can’t show anyone quite yet; knowing how you feel, even if you won’t tell anyone yet: these pieces of self-honesty are the first steps to all the rest of it. (I like to think that I don’t lie to myself, but it’s probably not true; being overly harsh on yourself is just as much of a lie as being too easy, right?)
4. “It’s not just money.” When Ponyboy, Johnny, and Two-Bit are walking Cherry and Marcia home from the movies, they’re talking about what separates the Socs and the Greasers and, long story short, they realize that class divides aren’t just about money, but about the inextricable strands of taste, gender, race, prejudice, regionality, and culture that knot together to form group identities, and the material consequences thereof:
“‘It ain’t fair that we have all the rough breaks!’ I didn’t know exactly what I meant, but I was thinking about Johnny’s father being a drunk and his mother a selfish slob, and Two-Bit’s mother being a barmaid to support him and his kid sister after their father ran out on them, and Dally—wild, cunning Dally—turning into a hoodlum because he’d die if he didn’t, and Steve—his hatred for his father coming out in his soft, bitter voice and the violence of his temper. Sodapop . . . a dropout so he could get a job and keep me in school, and Darry, getting old before his time trying to run a family and hang on to two jobs and never having any fun—while the Socs had so much spare time and money that they jumped us and each other for kicks.”
5. “If you don’t stick up for them, stick together, make like brothers, it isn’t a gang anymore.” Loyalty is something that Ponyboy learns to complicate throughout The Outsiders: sometimes you should be loyal to a person even if you disagree with what they do; and sometimes you have to be loyal to yourself and your beliefs even if it means not sticking up for that person. Either way, a gang, be it friends, family, or chosen family, is wicked important. Brothers!
6. “Nothing gold can stay.” But that’s what makes it magical. That tenuous, liminal moment before something becomes something else wouldn’t have the same power if it were permanent, and learning to appreciate those moments instead of mourning their loss is one of those lessons that I’m still working on.
7. “By the fifth day I was so tired of baloney I nearly got sick every time I looked at it.” If you’re going to kill a Soc to keep him from drowning your friend and you’re going to go hide in an abandoned church on Jay Mountain and you’re going to go get supplies from the store to last you for the week, you should not buy all baloney; aka, food is important and so’s variety and you should take care to ensure both.
8. “Southern gentlemen had nothing on Johnny Cade.” Honor, bravery, and generosity have nothing to do with your station and everything to do with your choices. As Jerry tells Ponyboy in the ambulance, after Pony and Johnny have saved the kids from the burning church,
“‘I swear, you three are the bravest kids I’ve seen in a long time. . . . Mrs. O’Briant and I think you were sent straight from heaven. Or are you just professional heroes or something?’ Sent from heaven? Had he gotten a good look at Dallas? ‘No, we’re greasers,’ I said.”
But that also doesn’t mean being a hero, necessarily. There are a lot of ways to be brave.
9. “So even Dally has a breaking point.” Everyone, no matter how tough, cold, disciplined, or unfeeling they may seem, has something they care about and something that will push them over the edge. And the tougher, colder, more disciplined, and more unfeeling-seeming they are, the farther out they may have gotten before they hit it, and the harder it can be for them to come back from it.
10. “I decided I could tell people.” Ponyboy can’t deal with the unfairness and loss that he’s feeling, so he decides to write it down and tell people, starting with his english teacher. Make art; tell the world!
Bonus wisdom 11. “All three of us like chocolate cake for breakfast . . . Sodapop always makes sure there’s [chocolate cake] in the icebox every night and if there isn’t he cooks one up real quick.” Nuff said.
So, what about you? What life lessons have you learned from The Outsiders?