The perks of being sensitive

I recently read The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky for a professional development group on young adult literature.  The main character, Charlie, despite his social awkwardness is a compassionate and surprisingly intuitive soul.  He seems to know instinctively about his peers’ inner feelings, while completely missing the social cues and rituals that legitimize high school life.  Our group was not able to come to any conclusions about this, but we wondered how realistic Charlie was as a representation of adolescents.  He certainly is not typical, and we considered the possibility that he represents a kid on the autism or aspergers spectrum.  Certainly, Charlie  could not successfully navigate the facade that masks many adolescents, but he successfully excavated to the souls beneath the facade.

As a 7th grade teacher, especially during the spring of 7th grade, I witness the gradual shift that occurs when my students make the move from pre-teen to teen.  Regardless of chronological age, some kids make this shift sooner or later than others. When do the students finally decide that they have to hide their true feelings, true connections, true desires in order to accepted, understood, or popular?  The 7th grade lunch room can be divided into sections, each one representing a set of accepted personas.  Rigid barriers, albeit invisible ones, separate the groups.

Charlie, from Wallflower, was the loner who was finally accepted by older kids, perhaps for his uniqueness, perhaps because they, too, were somehow misfits. Is the “normalizing” influence of education, social expectations, and the structure of our adults lives the culprit when it comes to forcing us to deny our inner selves?

Gorilla Girl and Foxy were out walking when I went to the State Track Meet, and came upon a crossing guard.  Foxy explained to Gorilla Girl that our mom, her grandmother, used to be a crossing guard.  It took Gorilla Girl a minute to realize that Foxy and I shared a mother, and then she remembered that our mom had died a long time ago.  Foxy told me that Gorilla Girl asked, “Do you miss her very much?” Gorilla Girl seems particularly sensitive and intuitive about social relationships.  At school, she frequently introduces her friends to my teacher colleagues, with whom she has developed her own relationships. Gorilla Girl’s sense of the importance of social relationship is remarkable, and colleagues have commented upon her innate understanding of their meaning.

Gorilla Girl, however, is also learning about the important social expectations of sharing, cooperating, and accepting.  Along with that, however, is the power struggle already evident among the group of girls in her nursery class.  I can see emerging the ones who will try to dominate the social scene in 7th grade. This balancing act between learning the proper types of inhibition — the ones that protect our communal lives — and the inhibitions to speaking truthfully, from one’s soul is an important one to make. Figuring out how to negotiate the world of adult rules of competition, treachery, and exclusion in the face of our desire for meaningful human connection seems the real challenge of adolescence.

Chbosky’s Perks, while certainly compelling story telling, leaves me wondering about how much adolescents give up when they enter the world of adulthood.  As a mom of two sensitive and empathic children, I want to embrace and acknowledge what children know intuitively that is routinely  erased by the rigors of adolescent life.

This entry was posted in book review, children, education and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The perks of being sensitive

  1. Deb Hanrahan says:

    That book is on my to-read list. It looks interesting.

    I’m so glad I’m reaching the end of that phase of parenting. Watching your kids navigate the social scene is excruciating. In my experience 7th grade was the worst.

  2. Eileen says:

    I need to read this book – I need more blogs from you peg… Easy for me to say I know you are busy! The blogs help me not miss you all so much!

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