The Perils of Positivity

MY MOM DIED of cancer two summers ago, and I’m sad she won’t be around for the publication of Best Teenagers Ever. I’d started my research and writing before the cancer hit her, and she was thrilled with the subject. “That sounds so positive,” she said in one of our many Denver (where I live) to Medford, Ore., phone conversations. “People need that, especially kids. There’s too much negativity these days.”

My mom hated negativity. She would complain all the time about cynical people like my dad. “He’s so down on everything,” she would say. Then she’d say it again — and again. My mom could be quite negative about my negative dad.

I thought she went too far in insisting others adopt her everything-is-beautiful-except-my-rotten-husband attitude. She hated hearing about Hitler and the Holocaust and all that “negative stuff.” “But we need to know that part of history so we can prevent it happening again,” I would say. She would respond, “But it’s so negative …”

My mom was far from alone in her obsession with optimism and “positivity,” defined by Webster’s Online as “quality or state characterized by certainty or acceptance or affirmation.” Six years ago, I worked for a principal who pushed a positivity message and declared negativity the new N-word at her school. Sounds lovely, except she slapped the “negative” label on anyone who disagreed with her.

Example: she received a district-mandated evaluation from her staff that mentioned a couple of areas in which she could improve. Rather than reflect and try to do better, she ranted about the “negative teachers” who gave her less-than-perfect marks on the evaluation at a staff meeting, and said she knew who they were.

Is trying to fix what is broken in a school, or a society, a bad thing? If so, we can only conclude that negative people make positive history. Best Teenagers Ever is filled with examples of angry teens lashing out against injustice. Claudette Colvin, Brenda Travis, Ruby Doris Smith and others felt a great, burning indignation with the way their race was mistreated — that’s what fueled the civil rights movement.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich coined the phrase and titled a 2007 book, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, which is equally true of agreeable men. Those who believe, like Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, that “All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds” will rarely acknowledge the oppression and injustice that surrounds us all.

I’m not defending those braying, soul-sucking drones who do nothing but complain. We all know one or more of those, and their squalling serves no purpose other than to increase aspirin sales. But are the opposites, the Pollyannas, so much better? The capacity to happily go with the flow is no virtue. History is full of good-natured folks who supported the most appalling people and programs.

An antagonistic response to a rotten situation is a classic double negative — it equals a positive. As long as the angry person takes action.

A different sort of negativity has worked for several inventors, artists, and authors, who have said, in so many words, “This stinks! I can do better.” Again, we all know people who denigrate everything they see, but Jim Shooter did something about the object of his scorn. Reading a lackluster issue of Adventure Comics in the mid-1960s, he told himself, “I can write better than this!” Then he proved it by sending scripts to DC and being hired as a comic-book writer.

Stanley Hiller Jr. had a similar response when analyzing helicopters in the early 1940s. He thought he had could make a more effective machine by using two large sets of blades on top of each other, turning in opposite directions. Then he created his first Hiller-copter before the age of twenty.

I think Best Teenagers Ever is a positive book. It’s full of uplifting stories that show what motivated young people can do. The fact that good things often come from angry or critical people should only remind us that passion is the major moving force in the world, and we should never discourage it.

Best fictional teens

 

I have a weakness for rankings, which brings me to this list of

THE GREATEST FICTIONAL TEENS

Picking between a teenager in a literary classic, a young adult novel, and a recent movie is like choosing between apples, oranges, and kumquats. Some of the following may be ranked too high or low, and I’m sure I’ll whiff on a few figures that belong here. So be it.

1. HUCKLEBERRY FINN. From The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1884. Age: thirteen or fourteen. Huck has always had his haters, whether they be 19th-century matrons who objected to his uncouth manners or modern critics who wince at his use of the N-word. Still, Huck is the moral center of what Ernest Hemingway, and others, believed and believe to be the greatest American novel.

 2. JANE EYRE. From Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, 1847. Age: eighteen (when she meets Rochester). Like Huck, Jane has shown incredible staying power. Young and old, readers still love this British classic, one of the ultimate chick-lit treasures. What makes it timeless is Jane’s grit and resolve, and the great gothic weirdness of the crazed-wife-in-the-attic angle.

 3. ROMEO AND JULIET. From Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare, 1593. Ages: thirteen (Juliet) and fifteen or sixteen (Romeo). Some people love this play and some feel they had it rammed down their throats in high school, where it remains a staple of lit studies. Either way, the characters remain a byword for youthful love.

4. HARRY POTTER. From the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling, 1997 to 2007. Ages: eleven through seventeen. Will kids still devour this wizard series a century from now? What we know is that Harry, Ron, Hermione, and their Hogwarts cohorts have been an enormous hit with old as well as young readers.

5. NANCY DREW. From Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Clock (and numerous sequels), Edward Stratemeyer, 1930. Ages: sixteen, then eighteen. The Hardy Boys books debuted three years earlier, but super-sleuth Nancy has aged better. Heroines who solve crimes with brains and guile are always appealing, which is why this franchise keeps getting new life. Nancy was sixteen for the first 29 years of the series, and turned eighteen in 1959.

6. ARCHIE ANDREWS. From Archie Comics, created by Bob Montana, 1941. Age: seventeen. For more than six decades, the comics’ oldest seventeen year old has tried to choose between the blond, sweet Betty Cooper and the raven-haired rich girl, Veronica Lodge. Life is good for Archie, Jughead Jones, Reggie Mantle, and other teenage residents of Riverdale.

7. JO MARCH. From Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, 1868. Age: fifteen. The other March girls — Meg, Beth and Amy — have their charms, but most readers prefer the strong-willed, tomboyish Jo, who is fifteen at the start of the novel.

8.  PETER PARKER / SPIDER-MAN. From Amazing Fantasy, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, 1962. Age: seventeen. DC’s Superman may be the greatest of all superheroes, but Marvel’s Spider-Man is the number-one teenage hero. Peter Parker is  a picked-on high school nerd when he’s not slapping on the spider suit and saving the world from the Green Goblin, Kraven the Hunter, and other evil freaks.

9. JIM STARK. From Rebel Without a Cause, directed by Nicholas Ray, 1955. Age: seventeen. This ranking may seem too high for post-baby boomers who’ve never heard of the ultimate 1950s troubled-teens film. At twenty-four, James Dean played the sexy-brooding Jim alongside real-life teens Natalie Wood (seventeen when the film was released) and Sal Mineo (sixteen).

10. HOLDEN CAULFIELD. From Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, 1951. Age: sixteen. For decades, this acid-tongued prep school dropout was an icon of misfit youth, but Holden’s appeal may be fading. The New York Times in 2009 reported than many modern students find him “weird,” “whiny,” and “immature.”

11. KATNISS EVERDEEN. From The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, 2008. Age: sixteen. Katniss is one of the toughest young-adult heroines, using brains, brawn, and skill to overcome some pretty nasty adversaries in Collins’ three-book trilogy, which includes Catching Fire and Mockingjay.

12. ANTONIA SHIMERDA. From My Antonia by Willa Cather, 1918. Age: fourteen (at the start of the book). Pronounced “Anton-ee-a,” the title character of Cather’s classic is a farm girl from Bohemia with “the most trusting, responsive eyes in the world.” Jim Burden, her neighbor, narrates this sometimes sweet, sometimes stark tale of an immigrant growing up in Nebraska.

13. TESS DURBYFIELD. From Tess of the D’urbervilles. Thomas Hardy, 1891. Age: sixteen (at the start of the novel). If you’re looking for a delightful page-turner to read at the beach, keep looking. Tess is a lovely young English woman surrounded by creeps who suffers so much that you’re a little relieved when her life is extinguished.

14.  MIRANDA. From The Tempest by William Shakespeare, 1611. Age: fifteen. Prospero’s daughter has been raised on an island with her dad, a spirit of the air named Ariel, and a son of a witch named Caliban who has the hots for her. The good news: the lovely Ferdinand washes up on the island, and after a few twists and turns, love prevails.

15.  PRINCESS LEIA / LUKE SKYWALER. From Star Wars (and sequels), directed by George Lucas. Ages: sixteen (Leia), eighteen (Luke). Described as “a beautiful young girl (about sixteen)” in the Star Wars screenplay, Leia is smart, tough, and sexy — her cinnamon-buns hairstyle only adds to her hotness. Luke has about one-tenth the charisma of Han Solo, but he’s the central Star Wars character, so you gotta put up with him.

16. BELLA SWAN. From Twilight (plus sequels) by Stephenie Meyer, 2005. Age: seventeen. A new student at a backwater northwest high school, Bella can’t understand why the smoldering, chalk-faced Edward seems to hate her. No, wait, that’s not hate — it’s love! The potentially fatal passion of a vampire for a Virgo dominates Meyer’s four-book series, which continues with New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn.

17. FERRIS BUELLER. From Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, written and directed by John Hughes, 1986. Age: seventeen. A lot of baby boomers loved this guy, although it’s hard to explain the attraction. Ferris is a super-popular kid with a super-hot girlfriend who skips school and has fun. Matthew Broderick did a great job of making the kid a charmer.

18. BABY HOUSEMAN. From Dirty Dancing, directed by Emile Ardolino, 1987. Age: seventeen. Teachers with seating charts beware: this girl can sit in the front, middle, or back, but as Johnny Castle says, “nobody puts Baby in the corner.”

19. CELIE. From The Color Purple by Alice Walker, 1982. Age: fourteen (at the start of the book). At fourteen, Celie has given birth to two children by her stepfather, who takes them away from her. Meek and mild for most of the novel, she eventually stands up to her dirtbag of a husband.

20. EDDIE HASKELL. From “Leave it To Beaver,” 1957-1962. Ages: twelve through the teenage years. “Wally, if your dumb brother tags along, I’m gonna — oh, good afternoon, Mrs. Cleaver. I was just telling Wallace how pleasant it would be for Theodore to accompany us to the movies.” The finest two-faced teenage creep on television, Eddie was one of the best reasons to watch “Leave it to Beaver.”

HONORABLE MENTION (in alphabetical order):

PAMELA ANDREWS. From Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, by Samuel Richardson, 1740. Age: fifteen. Squire B can’t keep his hands off this “poor maiden of little more than fifteen years of age.” He flings himself on her time and again, arranges a kidnapping, and finally — in desperation — marries her. What a prince.

STARGIRL CARAWAY. From Star Girl by Jerry Spinelli, 2000. Age fifteen. The title character is a new and offbeat sophomore at an Arizona high school who is so kind-hearted that her classmates, in classic mean-kid style, treat her like dirt.

PONYBOY CURTIS. From The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton, 1967. Age fourteen. He’s a sensitive, likable youngster, but who names their kid “Ponyboy?”

KATHERINE DANZIGER. From Forever by Judy Blume, 1975. Age: eighteen. This is one of the Blume books that school libraries ban because of the S-E-X. A high school senior, Katherine falls for Michael and eventually does the deed with him.

NAPOLEON DYNAMITE. From Napoleon Dynamite, directed by Jared Hess, 2004. Age: seventeen. Napoleon is quirky and hilarious and his friend Pedro (“Vote for me, and all your wildest dreams will come true”) may be even better.

HORATIO HORNBLOWER. From Mr. Midshipman Hornblower by C.S. Forester, 1950. Age: seventeen. “S-seventeen, sir,” stutters the young Hornblower when asked his age by a whiskered man on the Justinian. The shy, seasick boy seems like an unlikely maritime hero, but he’s a fast learner.

THE LITTLE MERMAID. From “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen, 1837. Age: fifteen. The fifth daughter of the Sea King gets to view the above-water world on her fifteenth birthday, beginning a chain of events that ends with her death. For a happy ending, see the 1989 Disney film.

MARTY MCFLY. From Back to the Future, directed and co-written by Robert Zemeckis, 1985. Age: seventeen. Nobody played seventeen year olds like twenty-four-year-old Michael J. Fox, who portrayed McFly, Scott Howard in Teen Wolf, and Alex Keaton in TV’s “Family Ties” all in the same year.

SCARLETT O’HARA. From Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell, 1936. Age: sixteen (at start of book). Scarlett’s green eyes are “turbulent, willfull (and), lusty with life,” wrote Mitchell of this flirty yet strong-willed Southern belle.

JEFF SPICOLI. From Fast Times at Ridgemont High, directed by Amy Heckerling and co-written by Cameron Crowe, 1982. Age: fifteen. Painfully serious at other times, Sean Penn was hilarious playing this stoned surfer dude.

CARRIE WHITE. From Carrie by Stephen King, 1974. Age: sixteen. The book version of Carrie is plumper and grumpier than the character played by Sissy Spacek in the 1976 movie, but just as deadly.

Failure can be good

 

During my days as a graphic designer, I saw countless colleagues at conferences make presentations that showed one success after another. Which got boring. Like a cynic at a Disney movie, I started pulling for the hero to fail. “For God’s sake,” I would think. “Show me something that flopped!”

 

Was that so weird? I don’t think so. “Failure teaches us more than success,” wrote Robin Trehan, someone I found on an Internet search. He’s right. We hear so much about triumphs, we tend to tune out them out.. Sure, President Lincoln and Martin Luther King and Oprah Winfrey faced obstacles on the road to greatness — big deal. We’re used to that.

 

A failure, though, can make us take notice. Like the first time I watched the 1974 film Chinatown, I was unprepared for the bleaker-than-bleak ending where Faye Dunaway is shot and her evil father gets away with — everything. A happy ending would have been more satisfying, but the depressing conclusion seemed more realistic and made me think more deeply about the movie and its characters and wonder where the good guys went wrong.

 

In researching Best Teenagers Ever, I found lots of stories that were more like Chinatown than the Disney version of The Little Mermaid (the Hans Christian Andersen original is more like a Chinatown for kids). Seventeen-year-old A.P. Tureaud, for example, was the first African American to integrate a Deep South public university, attending Louisiana State University nine years before James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi. So why isn’t Tureaud famous? Because he dropped out.

 

Should we celebrate what Tureaud did, or tried to do? Of course. In fact, the Tureaud story may be a better lesson for today’s students. Most have no idea how rotten race relations were in the earliest stages of the civil rights movement. Tureaud has said that white students refused to speak to him and some professors wouldn’t even touch his homework papers. Put yourself in his shoes, and you really feel the punch-in-the-gut reality of racism.

 

Tureaud was one of many risk-takers that we, as a society, say we admire, but I wonder if we only care for risks that succeed. I used to fight with an editor who claimed to favor risk-taking yet blanched at anything that might possibly fail. He would then explain his preference for “safe risks,” an oxymoron on the lines of “hot ice” and “friendly fire.”

 

As I see it, a risk is a 50-50 proposition, give or take 20 percent one way or the other. Sure, we should admire those who took a chance and won, but sometimes they took far less of a chance than those who fought injustice when resistance was stiffer.

 

I want someone to write a book about “glorious failures” and spotlight people like Shelby Knox. The subject of a 2006 PBS documentary titled “The Education of Shelby Knox,” she spent her four years in high school trying to get the Lubbock (Texas) school system to teach sex education. Technically, she failed in her goal, but she succeeded in showing a documentary audience how hard it is to triumph over imbedded ignorance. I feel like I learned more from her “failure” than I would if all the parties in her conflict resolved their issues and sung “Kumbaya” as the credits rolled.

 

Among the most glorious non-winners in Best Teenagers Ever are Louise Stokes and Tidye Pickett, who in 1932 qualified as the first two African-Americans to make the U.S. women’s Olympic track team. Later, they were replaced by two white women who ran slower times at the trials. Should the racism that cost them a chance at Olympic glory be held against them? Of course not. Again, I think we can learn as much, if not more, about injustice from their so-called defeat than we do from later victories.

 

To me, Louise Stokes and Tidye Pickett are just as much heroes as they would have been had they competed and won gold medals. They deserve our recognition, and respect.

Aside

Why teenagers?

Why me?

I just finished a book titled Best Teenagers Ever: From Joan of Arc to Mark Zuckerberg, A Treasury of More Than 500 Amazing Young Adults. If you were to poll the 640 survivors from my Medford (Oregon) Senior High School graduating class, 5 percent would say I was the last person they would ever expect to write such a book. The other 95 percent would say, “Who the hell is Bill Dawson?”

Fair enough. People talk about high school heroes and losers, but they never mention the invisibles. Because —duh — they never saw us. Which has its benefits. When you’ve been a see-through student, no one says 20 years later, “Oh, yeah. Bill. Didn’t you have that horrible restroom accident?” Instead they say, “Are you sure we went to the same school? Because, um, I don’t … “

But back to the opening: Why teenagers?

Because they have accomplished far more than most of us realize.

Because studies say young people like stories about other young people.

Because teachers, parents, and inspirational speakers like to use young-achiever anecdotes to motivate — or berate. As in, “Joan of Arc was just seventeen when she drove the English from Orleans. So why can’t you make your own toast?” 

Because teens have been the overlooked underdogs in many moments and movements, from the Revolutionary War to the Holocaust to the cyberspace revolution.

Because hundreds of compelling stories about teenagers never appear in textbooks or biographies. Ever hear of the Hercules of the Revolution, Flaming Milka, or La Diosa de Oro (The Golden Goddess)? Neither had I.

Because countless young people who fought on the front lines of civil rights and gender struggles paid a steep price for their courage and commitment. Their stories should be told.

Because so many teenagers have been involved in heartwarming moments, and despite 20-plus years as a cynical newspaper reporter, I’m a sucker for stories that make me feel good.

So, second question: Why me? Why did I write this book rather than Boris Von Cerebrum, professor of teenage studies at the University of Narnia?

Because I’m fascinated by teenage achievement, I’ve been researching it for years, and I like to write for casual readers, not academics. I’m a substitute teacher as well as a freelance writer, so I see huge value in what Best Teenagers Ever says, but when it comes to “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,” my book tastes more like licorice than castor oil.

It also makes sense that a lackluster teenager would grow up to write about exceptional teens. As a journalist, I covered countless young athletes and scholars and constantly thought, “Wow! At that age, I could barely put my socks on.”

Would Joan of Arc been so impressed? If she had lived past nineteen and taken a 21st-century job covering high schools for a community website? Please. She’d say, “Congratulations for winning the Tri-State debate contest” while thinking, “Oh, you can talk, can you? Try talking an uncrowned 15th-century king into giving you command of a military force!”

For me, that kind of inner disdain was never an issue.