by Lily Watson
Book 1: Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants by Ann Brashares
“In totum [sic], relating to the book was just as hard as sitting down for the 4 [sic] hours to read it and having a discussion on it felt impossible since I couldn’t relate to most of the characters.”1Via “YA Class Paper #1” by Lily Watson, found in the folder “I guess being incompassionate [sic] is cool now.”
As always, I sit closest to the student teacher in an effort to trick her into thinking that I speak more than I do. “Lily? I can’t think of a time when she said a single word, but I do remember her face, so it must have happened!” People start filing in, and I can’t help but notice that almost all of the class is white, with the exception of myself, a South Asian girl, and a girl two seats to my left, whose face is hidden by a curtain of dark hair. I think she might be Latina but can’t be sure.
When I saw the course listed months ago, it sounded like a class made just for me. I took the time to apply, listing twenty of my favorite young adult novels, unprompted, to let them know I was serious. To my dismay, I was rejected, but begged to be put on the waitlist, and was accepted into the class a day before schedules were finalized.
The thought of going through that just to sit at a table and say nothing is unacceptable, so half an hour later, I finally gather the courage to speak for the first time.
“Does anybody remember that book Crank2A brilliant poetry-style book about drug addiction by Ellen Hopkins.? The one about crack addicts and prostitution that we all read in the eighth grade?” The class stands up and claps. People fold up hundred-dollar bills in my direction and gently kiss me on the forehead, offering to write my essays for me until the end of the year. I pretend to decline, blushing and slipping the money into my pocket, already planning a spree at Whole Foods.
I’m on top of the world. I can do no wrong. I’m drunk on validation. Everyone loves me and wants nothing but my happiness. Ten minutes later, I decide to go back in for another comment.
“If I was reading this book for the first time not for a class, I would have put it down. I just couldn’t identify with all the white characters in the book.3To be clear, the main protagonist in the book, Carmen Lowell, is a Puerto Rican girl who feels alienated by her father’s new, shiny white family. She has, by far, the most interesting and complex story and the most character development of her friend group. However, the class seemed to be interested in exploring every story but hers. ” Crickets. My second observation of the day is met with silence and confusion. People slowly stand up out of their seats and hold out their hands, asking for their hundred-dollar bills back. I grudgingly take them out of my pockets and return them. Class ends minutes later.
Book 2: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
“It’s not that Patrick and Brad ruined the lives of high schoolers everywhere that were just discovering their sexuality; it’s more that when you look everywhere around you and people that look or act like you are constantly being brutalized or abused, it’s hard to be optimistic about your future and your place in the world.”4Via “Perks,” word document by Lily Watson, found in the same folder. The work is an evaluation of the tragic love story of Brad and Patrick in the book Perks of Being a Wallflower.
The first time I consider speaking, I want to talk about growing up with a brother who is autistic. Before I can raise my hand, I think “Hey! Why does this room full of white girls that don’t care about me and aren’t my friends deserve to have intimate knowledge about me that I’ve offered solely to participate in class?” I decide not to offer my life up as sacrifice, choosing to bide my time until I can say something less personal. I eventually raise my hand and say that white depression is presented as an individual occurrence, whereas Black depression is more often recognized by Black people as being part of a structural problem—as an inevitable byproduct of a country not made for them. My comment is acknowledged by a white girl who pretends to add onto it but just says the exact same thing with different words. My comment drops like a rock to the bottom of the conversation, inconvenient and ignored.
Book 3: TTYL by Lauren Myracle
“You remember that scene in Seinfeld when one of them pees in a parking garage? That’s me right now. I just peed in a parking garage.”5I decided, before I left for spring break, that it would be a good idea to rekindle a relationship with my friend Rodrick by taking him out to eat at ION, the vegan restaurant on Main Street. Unfortunately, I was operating on CPT, running a full forty-five minutes late and had to make a mad dash for the airport with ten minutes to spare. As you can surmise, I did not have time to go to the bathroom and needed to pee like my life depended on it and was forced to do so in the parking garage of Bradley International Airport. I felt the immediate need to alert my mother, so that she could know that things are different now; that her daughter’s morals had fallen by the wayside under the pressure that she’s under, and her sense of shame will be the next to follow.
It’s after spring break. I set my things down in a chair six seats from the teacher and next to my new friend, Lorena, who is, in fact, Latina. I cross my arms and sit back in my seat, narrowing my eyes as the teacher laughs at something the people around her are saying. It is evident now that most of the people she chose for the student forum are her close friends, which is why I had a hard time getting into the class even though young adult novel reading could be a fixture on my resume.
I had decided to skip the last class before spring break in favor of taking several Klonopin and making a distressed, hour-long phone call to my mother. The teacher of the class, who is, in reality, my peer, wrote me an email telling me I could not just skip class whenever I wanted: this was a full credit class, and I needed to take it more seriously if I was hoping to get a passing grade from her. Paired with the drama I’d been having with my car since the moment I stepped foot back in the hellhole that is CT, I was having none of it and decided not to speak at all during class. This child and her white cohorts did not deserve to hear my thoughts about this dumb book.
Book 4: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
“They find comfort that they do not know their neighbors in the same way that they find comfort in not having to think about their class or race, which is non-coincidentally white and middle-, respectively, in the case of almost all the characters between the four books. “6Via “YA class paper #1” by Lily Watson, in the aforementioned folder, whose name origin will become apparent in this section.
I sit two seats away from Lorena,7At this point Lorena has sent me several messages that could be seen as flirty via Facebook messenger, but I don’t have the emotional capacity to become invested in that relationship. trying to wrap my brain around the mess that is this class. The teacher and all her best friends are talking about how it is harmful to say that people should only talk about things they have direct, personal experience with, since that would make people less empathetic. I do not know at this point whether I am trying to participate or not. As my teacher/arch-nemesis so graciously reminded me, the class is pass/fail, so there’s really nothing that anyone can require of me so long as I show up and be quiet.
I am able, at this point, to articulate the things about this class that have really been bothering me: who are these girls and where did they come from? One of the girls has an aunt who is in publishing, and she tells us that she knew The Hunger Games was a hit months before it even came out. The only guy in the class told us that he slow-danced with Oprah at a bar mitzvah. It astounds me that these people are comfortable having a conversation about the responsibility that white, straight people have to marginalized groups without feeling the need to hear their voices.
It especially bothers me that the teacher, who is in my grade, has no problem with all these white, suburban tales and that her parents will have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on her education for her to leave this institution without acknowledging her own racism. I wonder if it’s my job to teach her—to make sure that she doesn’t leave our school with that mindset. Before I can even finish asking myself the question, I decide that it’s not.
Book 5: Wonder by R.J. Palacio
“My guilty pleasure is Whole Foods; I spend a lot of money there even though I don’t have an income. And I’d go to Iceland…alone, because you go there to be alone. I’d bring money.”8This came via an icebreaker, which the teacher is a huge fan of even though she’s friends with most of the people in the class. The task was: “Name a guilty pleasure, and then a place you would go, and with who.” After I mentioned money, everyone laughed, though I really didn’t think it was funny.
At this point, I do not care. I have gotten my first parking ticket, I have learned how not to change a car battery, and I have had a sharp, horrifying relapse back into depression. None of this is real, I think.
These girls are trying to make me feel crazy but I’m not crazy. When people speak, I feel like I don’t know the language and I am unable to respond. I realize that I used to be jealous of these girls around me, that I used to be sad that these are the girls that will be successful, and I am not them. These girls, that do not have to pop klons or manipulate their prescription meds to get their homework done, are not me. They will never understand that only two things are real: the fear of poverty and the fear of nature. Just these two things. And they’ll never know. I don’t feel sorry for them; I just don’t care about them. I have nothing to say about the book because I did not finish it.
Book 6: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
“I’d like to hear from someone who hasn’t spoken yet.”9The only people in the class that hadn’t spoken yet were the black and brown girls, so the teacher was not being as slick as she thought, though it was a cute effort. Also, note that she probably realized that the only girls not speaking were girls of color but in no way acknowledges this.
The book was devastating, and I don’t want to talk about it. This is also the point where I have become remarkably good at drawing hands. My homework? Not done. My friends? I have one, and they’re at work every time I want to hang out with them. But my drawing skills? Growing every day. I sit on my bed for hours, listening to music and learning how to draw via Pinterest.
For some reason, all the papers I have written recently have been about this university: about how it is stealing my soul and pretending that I have given it willingly. I am able to slink my inhibitions off my shoulders like the faux-fur coat that I bought with my Nordstrom discount, and I think that these girls are not my enemy. I wonder how they are actually happy, how this university works to tailor-make an experience, how they are able to buy into that experience when I feel like I’m drowning.
I speak briefly about the racism in the book, as I do every day, and am handed a cookie by the teacher. I crush it under my heel as I make a promise not to talk again.
Book 7: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
“Let’s go, girls.”10Shania Twain, Man, I Feel Like a Woman.
The only book about a black or brown person and the main character is a black girl whose black friend got shot. I’m not paying $20 for this book centered around a dead black person. I’m spending $32.99 to buy some boxing gloves from Amazon so I can get ready to show these girls what’s good; so I can look my teacher into her bespeckled face with its green eyes and, right before I tell her to put her dukes up to defend herself before I actually start swinging. tell her that I cannot believe that she has the audacity to decide the one book about a person of color will be about death. This day hasn’t happened yet, but I’m ready.
I don’t know what type of person that it takes to be happy at Wesleyan University or why that person is straight, white, upper-middle class, and claims to be woke but leaves with the same ideas they came in with. All I know is that those people don’t deserve to hear me speak just by virtue of letting me into the room. The fact that I’m not comfortable in that space means that I’m headed in the right direction.
PSYCH402: Formative Young Adult Novels of the 21st Century Forum was a student-led forum about young adult novels at Wesleyan University, hand-picked by a student who also facilitated class discussion. We alternated between reading young adult books and watching the movie adaptations for those books, if there was one. Essays about the book were due the week after we read it. The course was pass/fail. We met from 7pm-9pm on Tuesdays.