"We think we’re invincible," a girl wrote on the board.
"Our brains haven’t fully formed," a boy said.
Students read about the unbalanced, repellant relationship growing between Lou and Jocelyn: He picks her up in a red Mercedes while she’s hitchhiking and plies her with drugs. The book includes a graphic sex scene, but titillation is not the point. His relationship with her is about power—and his efforts to remain youthful despite the inexorable passage of time. Jocelyn, meanwhile, is so insecure that Lou’s controlling attention feels like love.
I asked my students what they thought the teenage characters wanted out of their first relationships. Trust, love, common interests, affection, security, and comfort, they said. They were likely talking about themselves without making a pretense of doing so.
Later on, the students wrote letters with advice to one of the three characters. Some scolded Lou ferociously as if they were enraged parents; others gently asked him to act his age, wondering candidly what trauma from his past compelled him to prey on a young girl. Students pleaded with Jocelyn to practice safe sex, eschew hard drugs, and reconsider her devotion to such a doomed relationship. They applauded Rhea for resisting conformity. They told her to feel good about her freckles. And girls told characters about their own concerns—feeling too tall to talk to boys, for instance, or too overweight to pose for a picture without covering their cheeks.
Even though I designed the writing exercise primarily to reinforce students’ proofreading skills and reading comprehension, I hope that in the future they’re more likely to take the advice they gave.
I’ve discussed "Woman Hollering Creek" with the child of a domestic abuse survivor and have read The Bluest Eye with students on a first-name basis with Child Protective Services caseworkers. It's okay if reading a work of literature triggers something in a student—literature is supposed to encourage empathy, identification, and fresh perspectives. Students should be reassured that the experiences they’ve endured, whether abuse or minor-league heartbreak, are not foreign to the rest of the world. The most tortured moments in literature affect humans because they reflect a reality that can torture us, too. Talking and writing about it is a blow against secrecy and shame.
According to Juana Rodriguez, a professor of women’s and gender studies at UC Berkeley, young people need to learn how to be "good sexual citizens." She believes that students should practice handling sexual situations even before they’re actually faced with them. Literature class, in her mind, helps them with this.
"They can try on the language of feeling in a way that is not about them," Rodriguez said. "They can talk about a character’s situation and think, ‘How would I respond? How does it feel to be turned down? How does it feel to be looked at that way?’ It gives them authority to speak about sexuality and, as they grow into themselves, learn to communicate feelings."