No. Inherently, there is a lot of power in the word no. The power to bring an end to something already set in motion. The power to stop things before a drop of life is breathed into them. The power to snuff out possibility. Undoubtedly, the person who utters those two letters possesses a great deal of power.
But what about the listener? What about the person on the receiving end of the no? Traditionally, we view that individual as powerless, stymied, or at least momentarily suspended in time. But what if there is real power in being told no? What if that is how we develop the tenacity that is necessary to navigate finances and other aspects of our personal lives? If that’s the case, then what happens when we stop being told no?
One hundred pages after last week’s quote, S.E. Hinton drops another gem in The Outsiders that I hadn’t previously given much consideration. For those of you who might be a little fuzzy when it comes to your middle school required reading, let’s set the scene. Written in the 1960s, this novel is an “other side of the tracks” a la West Side Story. In this particular moment, a member of the Socs – a rival group from the affluent side of town – has been killed and an unlikely conversation between rivals takes place. Another Soc has crossed gang boundaries to talk with Ponyboy, a member of a gang made up of poor teens from working-class families called greasers. The Soc has this to say about his fallen friend:
“He’s dead–his mother has had a nervous breakdown. They spoiled him rotten. I mean, most parents would be proud of a kid like that –good-lookin’ and smart and everything, but they gave into him all the time. He kept trying to make someone say ‘No’ and they never did. They never did. That was what he wanted. For somebody to tell him ‘No.’ To have somebody lay down the law, set limits, give him something solid to stand on. That’s what we all want, really.”
As a Soc, the speaker is a teen who never had to work, drives an expensive car, sports the most fashionable clothes (hello, Madras), and has basically spent his life with a silver spoon hanging from his mouth. This teen recognizes that his dead friend lived a very similar life of privilege. Instead of appreciating being dealt the upper hand or looking for ways to capitalize on the advantages he had been given, his friend became totally unmotivated and disenfranchised.
What is interesting about this line is the fact that this privileged teen is delivering a soliloquy in which he equates denying someone of his wants with providing a foundation for life, a purpose, a direction. Not only is this a really compelling and provocative notion on its own, it becomes even more interesting when readers consider this is being said by one teen to another teen, and they both seem to accept it as truth. The most outstanding aspect of this line — “To have somebody lay down the law, set limits, give him something solid to stand on.” — is that it was penned by S.E. Hinton, a high schooler herself when she wrote the novel.
So what’s the point? Does this mean that every teen or adult who doesn’t appreciate his or her advantages will meet a terrible fate? Not at all. But it does raise some interesting questions:
- Can privilege actually put someone at a disadvantage?
- Does materialism necessitate lack of gratitude?
- How would today’s consumerism culture impact the concept of no were it written in modern day?
- Does struggling in childhood make someone stronger as an adult?
- How can we develop and cultivate resiliency, grit, and appreciation?
Rather than share my ideas, though, I thought I would share some middle-school student responses. As in my last post, these responses have not been edited for content. I did, however, correct a few errant commas* as needed.
We need to be told no because if we aren’t, it doesn’t matter what we do. It will all seem okay.
I agree because if nobody told you no, then you would have no limits and do whatever you want. I think it is bad to be spoiled, because people who are spoiled are usually materialistic. They have the latest and greatest stuff, but they are never happy.
If the person is so grateful and never brags and is a good kid then no. It’s not a bad thing.
I think that is bad to be spoiled because then you don’t know what it feels like for others who aren’t spoiled. Also, I think that we do need to be told no because if you have everything that you want then there is nothing for you to gain. If you got something that you wanted and you worked hard for it you would be more happy, then if someone just gave it to you and you did nothing to deserve it.
I don’t think it is a bad thing to be spoiled but there is a time when you should have a few no’s here and there.
*We’re working on grammar in writing slowly but surely. Simple sentences and compound sentences and complex sentences, oh my!
So Tell Me…Do you agree with S.E. Hinton’s point? Were you surprised by any of my students’ insights? What would you add to the conversation about privilege, appreciation, or resiliency? Is there power in no?