I never read The Outsiders in school, and I know it’s part of the Language Arts curriculum now in some schools. My students were reading it today for class, so I decided to join them! The kids really seemed to like it – they were all actually silently reading, which for a class of eighth graders with a substitute is fairly impressive.
At first I didn’t think I was going to like it all that much. It’s not the type of thing I usually choose to read, after all. But it grew on me as I read more.
Ponyboy (yes, that’s his real name) is a fourteen-year-old boy growing up in the streets of Tulsa, Oklahoma (not NYC as I was assuming the whole time) in the 1960’s. (A lot of things make more sense now that I know we were in Oklahoma, like the horse stuff.) He’s a “Greaser” and is part of what many people would call a bad crowd. The “Greasers” are the poor gang kids who cause trouble, and the “Socs” or “Socials” are the rich gang kids who cause trouble. He’s part of a gang, but not one of those organized ones, more of a family of misfit kids than anything. Ponyboy is a good kid who likes school and is on the track team. Sodapop (again with these names!) is his older brother, the middle child, and is sixteen. He dropped out of school and works at a gas station, and is content with his lot. He knows he’s not too smart, but he’s charismatic and attractive. Their oldest brother Darry (Darren) is struggling to keep his family together. He’s the father figure, has had to be since their parents died. He’s only twenty and is working two jobs to keep food on the table and the roof over their heads. Ponyboy thinks that Darry doesn’t want him around, but eventually realizes that Darry is just terrified of losing someone else that he loves.
We also have Two-Bit, Johnny, Steve, and Dally (Dallas) as their main gang. Two-Bit is a jokester and a thief, Johnny is the ‘pet’ of the gang, Steve is Soda’s best friend, and Dally is the bad-ass with a record. Two-Bit and Steve don’t really add too much to the story. Johnny is a bit twitchy after being violently beat up by a gang of Socs, which was much worse than the beatings he usually got at home.
[Plot summary] Most of the boys sneak into a drive-in movie and Ponyboy, Johnny, and Dally meet two Socs girls, Cherry (Sherri) and Marcia. Dally tries to mess with them, but quiet Johnny sends him away and he and Ponyboy watch the movie and talk with the girls. Two-Bit finds them, and the boys start to take the girls home. Their boyfriends, the ones who beat up Johnny, come and find them, and are none too pleased to see their girls with some Greasers. Later that night, Johnny and Ponyboy are in a park when they get attacked. While Ponyboy is being drowned in a fountain, Johnny kills one of the other boys. They then make a run for it, using some resources from Dally. They hide out in an abandoned church outside the city for about a week when Dally comes to find them. As Johnny tells them that he wants to turn himself in, the boys discover that their bolthole is on fire, with a bunch of kids trapped inside. Ponyboy and Johnny go in to save them, and Johnny gets a broken back for his trouble. The boys are touted as heros for saving the kids from the fire. The Greasers and the Socs are planning a brawl after what happened, and everyone except Johnny (and Randall, one of the Socs who is sick of fighting) goes to the fight, which the Greasers win. Dally and Ponyboy go tell Johnny in the hospital that they won, and Johnny dies. Dally can’t handle the death of his friend, and robs a store so that the police will come after him and shoot him. Ponyboy does not do well in the aftermath. He gets sick, and then he stumbles around life and his grades slip. His English teacher tries to bring him around, and he eventually writes the book we just read as an assignment. [End plot summary]
Ponyboy goes through a lot of growing and realizations in the book. He realizes that while there may be differences between the Greasers and the Socs, they are all just people in the end, fellow human beings who have their own problems. He realizes that his only reason for fighting is self-defense, whereas other people have their own reasons (fun, pride, hatred, conformity). He realizes that he may not always be the smartest in the room, and that he may underestimate people’s intelligence. He realizes that his brother loves him and is trying his best to keep everyone he loves with him.
This started out as just a slice of life for a kid growing up with kid problems. Yes, he had it rough, but he still had average kid problems for his situation. Then things got real, and he was forced to see things in a new light. I think it started with Johnny’s beating, which happened before the ‘events’ of the book. It made his place in society more real. There were real lasting consequences to something that happened to one of his friends. The deaths of his parents were an accident, and he was dealing with that with his brothers. He still had a father figure in Darry. But the deaths of people in front of him, of his peers, had a bigger toll on his mental state.
At least now I know where “Stay gold” comes from. It’s a plea for innocence. There’s an initiative called Project Stay Gold, a student group that fights against human trafficking and modern-day slavery. I’m assuming the title came from the students reading the book, although it may be from the poem. Either way, check it out!