I was recenly reminded of one my favorite books that I used to teach in a class for students whose main goal in life was to graduate from high school. Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is a young adult novel written by Chris Crutcher, a great writer for reluctant readers or hardened kids who just can’t find time, space, or reason for sticking their nose into any book.
Sarah is a young woman whose face and hands are disfigured due to a mysterious accident. Early on in her school years she befriends Eric, a large boy whose nickname is Moby for his whale-like physique. Eric loves the hard-ass approach to life that Sarah takes and they quickly become defenders of the freak shows in their school. But as they get older, Eric takes up swimming and starts to lose weight. Rather than risk losing his friendship with Sarah and their freak-show status, he gorges himself. Much is discovered about friendship and being your own person along the way and Eric concludes, “Ain’t it a trip where heroes come from?”
I concur. Too often we look at headlines and glossy pages and old history books. But this tiny paperback made me lift my eyes up. From that vantage point of being a third year teacher, I could see all that greasy skin and mousy hair and painful acne and be amazed. Each one of those kids was wearing their insecurities in a different way. Maybe it was a redneck flag, a goth flag, a goody-two-shoes flag, the tough-shit flag, the I-might-be-gay-and-I-better-hide-it flag, or the I-don’t-need-rules-flag, but no matter. In that moment with that book, those kids were all looking at me and buying into who Eric and Sarah were and offering me a tad bit of their real selves. Teaching this book to those kids offered me this little gift. The walls would melt briefly, the freak flags would lower, and we could just bask in being imperfect clueless humans together.
I am not ignorant enought to think the book changed their lives, though I can hope. But it certainly changed how I look at people.
We all have flown some sort of freak flag at one time or another. Humans by their very nature are quirky, weird, unpredictable. The heroes among us are those who strike out every day with the courage to let others see who they really are, and it is the hardest thing because people can be so judgemental and critical. We tell our kids to be true to themselves, but then we ostracize them, humiliate them, and in some cases, physically harm them.
It’s certainly not the kind of thing I would hope for my own kid, experiencing pain, suffering, and ridicule for being who you are. But I have no way of explaining that which does not make sense. Life is difficult and therefore, we have no shortage of heroes.
Keep your eyes up.