The ups and downs of the first full week of a new school year have come to pass and with it, a sigh of relief. At least now we can begin to establish a routine and settle into some semblance of normalcy. But that old word–normal–dogs me once again. Many of the students in the learning disabled population where I teach want nothing more than to blend in, to become like the rest of “them.” Yet sadly, many arrive with fresh wounds having been inflicted by “them.”
So ironically, I marched through the week finishing a book featuring one of the most radical nonconformists in young adult fiction, Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli. Her real name was Susan Caroway, but one of the many names she created for herself was Stargirl, because “I didn’t feel like Susan anymore.” She arrived at unspectacular Mica High with an array of long hippie-like skirts, accompanied by her pet rat and a ukulele for singing happy birthday without an invitation to anyone and everyone. Put off at first, the students began to warm up to her random acts of kindness and her infectious enthusiasm. Largely due to her cheer-leading charisma, bottom-ranked Mica High was headed for the basketball championship for the first time in years when things fell apart. Stargirl not only cheered for both teams at games (“I root for everybody”), but when a star opponent became injured, she rushed onto the court to help him. Overnight the entire student body turned against her. They shunned her. There was no turning back, even when Stargirl made a brief and painful attempt to look, act, and sound just like “them.”
While Spinelli doesn’t sell himself as a Christian writer, returning an angry slap in the face from a jealous cheerleader with a kiss on the cheek is right out of the New Testament. If you don’t go with the Christian theme, you might be tempted to swing to the other extreme, wondering why Stargirl didn’t have a total and complete mental collapse, so unpredictably, out-of-this world crazy she seems.
So at the end of this long first week of school, I look at my sweet students and want to say “go for it!” Be who you are. Don’t let “them” ever stop you or try to remake you into someone you are not. And I look at myself as a teacher and writer and wonder, how willing am I to step out there and be so different, so innovative, so creative beyond imagination, so other-directed that my own sense of normalcy becomes significantly redefined.
Radical individualism. If you’ve had a brush with it, I’d love to hear from you.