When I was in seventh grade, I entered my “jackass year,” a year I will always regret but as I look back, it seems almost funny to me.
My older brother introduced me to an author, S.E. Hinton, who wrote books like Rumble Fish, The Outsiders and Tex. The characters in these books grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, fighting, selling drugs, dropping out of school and even committing murder (but only because they had to). It seemed so appealing compared to my boring life. For me, every day was the same: wake up, have breakfast, go to school, have dinner and go to sleep.
Rusty-James in the book Rumble Fish was one character that inspired me. He was a rebel who lived in a crummy apartment in the inner city. I read the book over and over to be more like him. He would go to parties and get drunk and get in fights. He was quick on his feet and always knew the right thing to do at the right time. For example, when he fought a rival gang member who held a blade, Rusty tried to get the knife away from him. He won the fight, but his rival slashed him across the ribs. Then Rusty’s brother joined the fight and his enemy backed off.
The fights I got into were nothing like that. One time, my friend told me he wanted to fight me in the school bathroom, I didn’t know why. He punched me in the back and I pushed him against the wall, he jabbed me in the stomach and I tried to get one of his legs but then it was time for class so I just left. After all, I did not want to get a broken bone or get in trouble.
In another scene, Rusty-James and his older brother break into a pet store late one night and set all the pets free, even the fish. The brother had a plan to take the fish to a nearby river, but the police came. I knew they would—you are going to get busted if you act that way. The older brother gets shot and the younger one gets arrested. It seemed so pointless to see them get that harsh punishment just because they wanted to set animals free. It was hard to read that part of the book but I loved reading it. Whenever I read the book, I formed an image in my mind of a dark, mysterious city with smoke rising from the sewers. I imagined a life where I would fight, drink and smoke constantly, get beat up—you name it.
I couldn’t get my mind off those books. I photocopied the book covers and taped them inside my locker, sort of as a shrine. I felt a sense of freedom that I had decorated my locker, especially since my school told us not to. It was like a little tiny place where I could escape.
My parents would go into my room and find me reading the same S.E. Hinton books. They kept telling me to try some different genres. You think I listened? I would bring the books to school every day, and friends made fun of me. They asked me, “Do you SLEEP with those books? Do you go to the bathroom with them?” Whenever my family took us on trips, I took the books, hidden in my backpack so my parents wouldn’t find out. I didn’t want another lecture about how there are more important things in life than kids who live in the country, screwing around and messing up, and you don’t get anywhere from that.
The character, Tex, fascinated me because his life was such a struggle. He lived in the country. His dad had abandoned him so he lives with his 17–year–old brother. To buy groceries and pay bills, they sell their horses and have summer jobs mowing lawns and cashiering at a grocery store—a life that I wanted to have. I wanted to prove that I was not a rich, spoiled brat who does not know anything about the real world. But it didn’t seem fair to have my family go into debt just so I could see what it would be like. My parents fought to give me opportunities that I couldn’t just throw away.
I wasn’t very good at rebelling
I liked the idea of being violent and extreme—I wanted to be a tough, struggling rebel so people would respect me—but somehow it did not fit my life. For one thing, I went to St. Martin of Tours, a strict Catholic school where nothing ever happened. For another, I didn’t want to end up arrested or maybe even shot. So I did my best in DRESSING and TALKING like the characters I read in those books. While all around me kids were wearing baggy shorts and Led Zeppelin T-shirts, the clothes I wore to imitate Tex were plain T-shirts, tight jeans and New Balance tennis shoes. I would tuck in my shirts. My friends asked me, “Are you gay?” And my brother asked, “Why the hell are you tucking in your shirts?” Every sentence I would use the word “ain’t.” I rebelled in little ways, like decorating my locker. I occasionally talked back to my parents. I came late to history class one day (and had to write a long essay on why I should not be tardy).
An excerpt from Rumble Fish
by S.E. Hinton:
“‘We have decided that we can no longer tolerate your kind of behavior.’ [The guidance counselor] went on to list all the things I’d been sent to the office for that year: fighting, swearing, smoking, sassing the teacher, cutting classes…
My biggest rebellion came during a religious service at school. During that year, I became good friends with a classmate who was an atheist. We were both in school mass on Ash Wednesday. During the Holy Eucharist, when everyone was going to the altar and receiving the host (a wafer that represents the body of Christ), I saw my friend stay in his seat. I decided to stay in my seat also so I could find out what would happen.
My principal noticed us sitting there. She walked over to us and told us to go up to the altar and stop disrespecting the church. I went up and received the host and got the ash on my forehead. I don’t know why but Catholics always get ashes on Ash Wednesday. After mass, I washed it off but left a little bit on. The principal then called me to her office and asked me, why are you here if you’re not Christian?
I didn’t say anything, but I thought that was pretty stupid since people of all religions should be welcome at my school. Plus, I thought taking communion was optional. When I told my mom, she was livid. She kept yelling at me that I was not supposed to speak out saying that I was an atheist. She asked me how I would get into Loyola if I got kicked out of St. Martin? I started to get scared, and I began to wonder if maybe I had disrespected my religion, as my principal said.
It was time to change
Over the summer, it seemed to me that I was going too far. Being a follower of S.E. Hinton’s stories was controlling my mind, and I was turning into a jackass. I knew I was not going to get anywhere by trying to live by what I read in a book. I wanted to be myself again, an individual who had the courage to have his own opinions, make his choices by himself, dress how he wanted to dress, talk how he wanted to talk. I was not about to have a goddamn 150-page book ruin my life.
It was complicated and hard to be normal; trying to put the books down and read other books that challenged my S.E. Hinton-like mind. I read The Things They Carried, a novel about the Vietnam War, and The Catcher in the Rye, and the whole time I was trying to see if they related to S.E. Hinton. Just like someone quitting smoking, I had to resist the temptation of going back to what I knew.
My interests have branched out. Today, I would rather watch movies than read. I like science fiction, drama, military/war, comedies and movies on surviving in the ghetto. I am a big 1980s fan, am into the skate scene, admire my brother at times, and have become an environmental, hippie-like liberal. I watch the old TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air 24/7 and I’m into classic rap albums like The Chronic, Doggystyle and the music of Tupac. I support racial equality, freedom of religion, women’s rights and gay rights. I also collect hats from the early 90s.
Devoting my time to L.A. Youth has given me a chance to meet different kids with their own problems, which lets me know I am not the only teenager with problems. I also hang out with my friends, sleep constantly and never do my homework just like a regular teenager. Instead of wishing I could read S.E. Hinton, I wish I had a TV in my room (my parents feel it would distract me from my homework).
If you want to read S.E. Hinton, go ahead and have fun. But don’t be stupid enough to follow something that’s just written on paper. You have the choice of reading a book and letting it rule your mind, or putting it down and saying, “That’s a good book, now I’ll find another book to read.”