"Teenage Wasteland" by Anne Tyler
Daisy Coble meets with the principal of the private high school that her son, Donny, attends, and the principal tells her that Donny is disruptive and not responsive in class. At the principal's suggestion, Daisy supervises Donny's homework. His grades improve slightly, but the school reports new behavior problems, including smoking and possibly drinking. A psychologist recommends a tutor, Cal Beadle, whom Donny meets with three times a week and grows to like. Cal says that Daisy and Matt, Donny's parents, are too controlling and accusatory. Although Daisy tries to be positive with Donny, his behavior continues to deteriorate, and eventually he is expelled from school. Cal calls the expulsion unjust, but Daisy no longer trusts Cal. She enrolls Donny in a public school and stops the tutoring sessions. One day Donny runs away from home, and he does not return.
This story addresses
- young adult disillusionment
- parental responsibility
- lack of academic progress
- "expert" opinion versus common sense
- effects of drug and alcohol on decision-making processes
- teenage runaways
To encourage students to
- identify "at risk" behaviors
- analyze alternative reactions to the stressful situations presented in the story
- seek appropriate guidance and/or assistance from others in dealing with their own or their friends' stressful situations
Organize the class into reading circles and have each circle elect a guide and a scribe. Instruct guides to lead the oral reading of the story by all members of the circle. Ask scribes to keep notes on conversations about the story that arise during the reading. Have students focus their discussions on the events of the story that evolve contrary to the way they should.
Re-form the class and ask each scribe to identify the circumstances that the circle decided could have been handled differently. List the circumstances on the board. Ask students to offer alternative methods of dealing with the circumstances that would likely result in more favorable resolutions.
Use the following questions as springboards to solutions:
- If this story were told from Donny's perspective, what details do you think would change? Why? What does Daisy's account not take into consideration?
- Donny's inappropriate behavior is typical of a lot of teens. What outward signs of distress does he show? How should he have been helped?
- Daisy accepts the decisions of the "experts." Do you think she was right or wrong in doing so? Why/Why not?
- As a parent, what could Daisy have done to prevent Donny's running away? What responsibility does his father share in the outcome?
- What blame do the "experts" shoulder in Donny's running away?
- Is Donny to blame for anything? Has he acted in his best interest? How do you think his future will be affected by the decisions he made in his youth?
- What should Daisy do to deal with the guilt she feels about Donny's running away?
- Wherever Donny is, what steps should he take to ensure that his past does not overcome his future?
Most teens are familiar with the counter-culture of the 1960s, but what about other periods in history? Instruct students to work in pairs to conduct research into young adult disillusionment through the ages to have them discover what trends influence disillusionment. (For example, is disillusionment more likely during periods of economic prosperity or depression? is it more likely during times of political strife or tranquility?)
Have each pair present their findings in an oral report to the class that focuses on the similarities between the past and the present. Ask them to identify healthful strategies to deal with disillusionment, both then and now.
Ask each student to interview a parent (not his or her own) about the pleasures and difficulties of parenthood. Have students plot the high and low points of the parent's experiences on a graph, being sure to caption the graph appropriately. Then have students suggest ways the parent could have reacted to difficult periods to make the outcomes more pleasurable.
You Are There
If you were a character in the story, what would you have done to help Donny? What problems might you have encountered? How would you have faced them?
Real World Connection
Instruct students to conduct research into the current state of teenage runaways to answer such questions as:
- How many teens are currently missing from their homes?
- Where are they and how do they survive?
- Statistically, how many can be expected to return home?
- What organizations exist to assist runaways? Do any of them assist runaways in returning home?
- What are some hotline numbers for teens in crisis?
- Are there local organizations to which teens can turn for help in lieu of running away? What are they?
Have students share their findings with the class.