Ponyboy: The Writer
Ponyboy not only has just about the best name we've ever heard of (we dare you to start calling yourself Kittenlad or Rottweilergal), but also has a real flair for the written word.
Ponyboy is fourteen, is our narrator, and has a ton to say about himself and his world. Writing his story becomes a way for Pony to deal with the generous portions of grief that keep coming his way. When we meet Pony, both of his parents have already died in a car accident and he's being raised by his brothers.
We understand Ponyboy's moodiness, forgetfulness, and confusion intimately (being fourteen sucks), but, given his biography, these character traits are even more understandable... even if we can't all relate to his trials and tribulations.
And these attitudes and behaviors only increase after Johnny and Dallas die. Ponyboy barely knows where he is or what he's doing:
I wasn't scared. It was the oddest feeling in the world. I didn't feel anything – scared, mad, or anything. Just zero. (12.13)
The world is a hostile place he can't cope with. He's slipping away, and he's doing things that aren't in his best interest, almost against his will.
That's part of why the ending of this novel is so awesome: Pony finds a way to live in the world again through writing, self expression, and reaching out to his teachers and peers:
Suddenly it wasn't only a personal thing to me. I could picture hundreds and hundreds of boys living on the wrong sides of cities. […] Hundreds of boys who maybe watched sunsets and looked at stars and ached for something better. (12.65)
In case you didn't notice, Ponyboy is good at just about everything. We'd hate him... if we didn't love him so much:
I'm supposed to be smart; I make good grades and have a high IQ and everything, but I don't use my head. Besides, I like walking. (1.6)
He gets straight A's, excels at both sports and art, and is an ace writer. He can even turn a mean back flip in the air and can hold his own in a rumble. Pony's interested in everything from books and movies to the intricacies of nature. In the right situation, he can even recite you a poem from memory.
Pony's interests isolate him from his friends and family. Check out the number of times he tells us he's "different" and misunderstood? He also implies that Greasers are unfairly judged by teachers and other authority figures because of their financial status and their distinctive way of styling their hair, dressing, speaking, and acting. Pony is basically always trying to prove himself, but still maintain his uniqueness and express pride in who he is.
Luckily, Mr. Syme, Pony's English teacher, understands what Pony's going through... and encourages Pony to write about his life. When Pony asks what his writing assignment is, Mr. Syme says,
"Anything you think is important enough to write about. And this isn't a reference theme [research paper]; I want your own ideas and your own experiences" (12.10).
Mr. Syme is the English teacher we all wish we had at age fourteen—instead of a drone (*cough* Ms. O'Keefe *cough cough*) who monologued on about how Romeo and Juliet was proof positive that we shouldn't date until we were at least twenty-one.
So, by the end of the book, Pony's interests are not longer isolating. Part of Pony's coming-of-age happens because he sees that his talents and interest can actually connect him with people everywhere:
And I decided I could tell people, beginning with my English teacher. (12.71)
When he meets Cherry and feels connected with the Socials for the first time (through the sunset), he runs with the idea and begins applying it to his daily living and later to his writing.
Ponyboy isn't perfect, though. After all, admire Pony not because he's an angel, but because he's a human who makes mistakes but also tries to do the right thing.
So, what seems to be Pony's biggest flaw? We can't say vanity. He's really, really into his hair, but he does give it up when he has to. We can't say he's selfish, because he's willing to do anything for the people he cares about. And falling asleep all the time isn't really a flaw, especially if you're as active as Ponyboy.
So, we'll say that his biggest flaw might be that he can be a bit judgmental. At the beginning of the novel, he doesn't really like anybody except Johnny, Soda, and Two-Bit. It takes him a long time to understand that Darry actually loves him. And while he is loyal to the rest of the gang, he often doesn't approve of their behavior... or approve of the girls that they date:
They were the only kind of girls that would look at us, I thought. Tough, loud girls who wore too much eye makeup and giggled and swore too much. (1.76)
Hmm. Do you detect a teensy bit of a double standard at play here?
But in some ways, this tendency to judfe speaks well of Pony. He's defining his ideas about right and wrong. He's learning to judge character, and is using judgment to just help make sense of the world. But, he also makes lots of hasty generalizations—some of which are resolved at the end of the book. For example, he realized that all Socials are not the same, and that they're all people. He learns to separate group identity from personal identity.
What do you think Pony's greatest weakness is? Do you think he's too judgmental? Is he a believable, well-rounded character?
As Ms. Hinton put it in a recent interview, “That concept of the ‘in crowd’ and the ‘out crowd’ is universal. The names of the groups may change, but kids still see their own lives in what happens to Ponyboy and his friends.”
Ponyboy’s story has spoken to so many over the decades because balancing on a precipice between hope and despair is, for many young people, a daily reality. For most young people coming-of-age, learning to fit in and find their place in the world is a big enough challenge. But for the young men in these texts, gangs, with their promise of brotherhood and belonging, add additional allure and danger.
Ms. Hinton wrote the book as a high school student, living the conflicts that became central to her book. Times reporter John Eligon wrote about Chicago gangs after spending weeks with current and former members. Both pieces raise questions about identity and belonging, manhood and respect — and introduce us to young men who “defy easy caricature” as they wrestle with those issues.
Key Question: What can we learn by seeing the world through the eyes of outsiders?
Activity Sheets: As students read and discuss, they might take notes using one or more of the three graphic organizers (PDFs) we have created for our Text to Text feature, which matches often-taught texts with Times articles and other content.
• Comparing Two or More Texts
• Double-Entry Chart for Close Reading
• Document Analysis Questions
Text 1: Excerpt from The Outsiders, Chapter 7
... As I lit up, the Socs who had jumped Johnny and me at the park hopped out of the Mustang. I recognized Randy Adderson, Marcia’s boyfriend, and the tall guy that had almost drowned me. I hated them. It was their fault Bob was dead; their fault Johnny was dying; their fault Soda and I might get put in a boys’ home. I hated them as bitterly and as contemptuously as Dally Winston hated.
Two-Bit put an elbow on my shoulder and leaned against me, dragging on his cigarette. “You know the rules. No jazz before the rumble,” he said to the Socs.
“We know,” Randy said. He looked at me. “Come here. I want to talk to you.”
I glanced at Two-Bit. He shrugged. I followed Randy over to his car, out of earshot of the rest. We sat there in his car for a second, silent. Golly, that was the tuffest car I’ve ever been in.
“I read about you in the paper,” Randy said finally. “How come?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I felt like playing hero.”
“I wouldn’t have. I would have let those kids burn to death.”
“You might not have. You might have done the same thing.”
Randy pulled out a cigarette and pressed in the car lighter. “I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore. I would never have believed a greaser could pull something like that.”
“ ‘Greaser’ didn’t have anything to do with it. My buddy over there wouldn’t have done it. Maybe you would have done the same thing, maybe a friend of yours wouldn’t have. It’s the individual.”
“I’m not going to show at the rumble tonight,” Randy said slowly.
I took a good look at him. He was seventeen or so, but he was already old. Like Dallas was old. Cherry had said her friends were too cool to feel anything, and yet she could remember watching sunsets. Randy was supposed to be too cool to feel anything, and yet there was pain in his eyes.
“I’m sick of all this. Sick and tired. Bob was a good guy. He was the best buddy a guy ever had. I mean, he was a good fighter and tuff and everything, but he was a real person too. You dig?”
Text 2: Excerpt from “Bored, Broke, and Armed”
The young men who call themselves Gangster Disciples skirted by an empty lot. They marched past a “Stop the Violence” mural painted on a corner store, coming to a halt when they saw members of a rival gang, the Black Disciples.
It was late September on a busy South Side intersection, and now tensions were escalating, gang members who were there recalled.
There were glares, they said. Then words.
“You’re a rat,” a Black Disciple said to one of the Gangster Disciples who he believed had given the police information about him.
Things were about to blow.
It had been exactly 90 days since some of these same men had sat across from one another in an airy church hall to broker peace and confront a hard truth: The gang war they had inherited and were viciously continuing was helping to unravel parts of this city, where the levels of violence were reaching horrific new heights.
... The Times spent several weeks this fall with gang members to get a better understanding of what it means to be in a gang. They were often days of boredom, punctuated by bursts of drama and bravado. Gang life means animated debates over whether the guys on the next block meant to insult you or not. It means worrying over how to make enough for your next meal or your next high. And it means mourning the loss of loved ones, retaliating in their honor, yet wanting the cycle to stop.
Ron, a 23-year-old Black Disciple who uses the nickname Kaos, and for safety reasons asked that his last name not be used, explained the relentless cycle of violence: I’ve already lost friends. If we are making money, I can ignore the urge to retaliate. “But if we’re sitting here bored, getting high and we got guns around, it ain’t nothing else to do,” he added.
Still, these are young men who defy easy caricature. They are the sales associates who help you find shoes at a sportswear store or factory workers next to you on the assembly line. They kiss their young children on the lips and cry when someone close to them dies.
And, yes, they do use and sell drugs, and sometimes lash out in inexplicable bursts of violence over disputes like a battle for a girl’s attention, or disrespectful words uttered on a rap video posted to YouTube.
Or, as was the case in front of the corner store in late September, over an insult hurled on a busy intersection.
For Writing and Discussion
1. The article observes that gang members are “young men who defy easy caricature” and that boredom contributes to the cycle of violence in Chicago’s neighborhoods. Where do you see similar themes in the novel? What other parallels do you see?
2. Both “Bored, Broke and Armed” and “The Outsiders” are based on firsthand observations. An adage for writers advises us to “write what you know.” Why might that be especially important when telling the stories of cultural outsiders? What other outsider narratives can you think of? How were they told?
3.Research shows that, for many, belonging to a gang can fill the role of family. How do both the article and the novel show this? What lines or scenes from the article on this theme echo lines or scenes from the novel? How?
4. In describing how gangs emerged in Chicago neighborhoods, Mr. Eligon writes, “Boys, with little supervision, money or education, formed cliques. They hung out socially, and got into fights and other petty trouble. He continues: “Now they were everywhere and nowhere — gangsters by name, but kings only of corners and blocks.” How do power and powerlessness play a part in these two texts? How do these power dynamics contribute to cycles of violence? What questions do the texts raise about manhood? Why?
5. In a section of “Bored, Broke and Armed” called “A Red Hoodie on Enemy Turf,” Mr. Eligon writes:
The clique worried that the war was about to flare again, said Antwine White, 24, a Gangster Disciple who is called Weedy. “You just get prepared for the worst,” he said. “They can walk over here. We can think it’s cool. They shoot.”
That defines day-to-day gang life in Chicago. The young men bound around with their chests out, but their heads are on constant swivels, eyeing everything around them.
What does the article reveal about how perceptions and expectations can contribute to cycles of violence? Do you see similar attitudes playing a role in cycles of violence elsewhere, whether in your own personal experience or as you read headlines in the newspaper about conflicts around the world? How?
6. How do both the article and the novel feature people who defy stereotypes of gang members? What can you learn from them?
Gangs and Law Enforcement
The Times recently reported that shootings in New York had fallen to the lowest number since the ‘90s, with most of the credit going to new policing tactics that increase focus on gang-related issues. But in one town in Long Island, gang violence is running rampant — and drawing attention to the effects of gangs even on young people who are trying to avoid them.
Based on what you read in these two articles, list specific steps that law enforcement might take to improve life in communities troubled with a history of gang violence. Which of these steps might make good immediate priorities and which make better long-term goals? Which might work best in a community near you?
“The Outsiders” at 50
Writing in the Book Review in 2007, Dale Peck reassessed “The Outsiders” on its 40th anniversary. He pointed out that Ms. Hinton’s book was in many ways fresh, original, and exciting for young readers, changing the Young Adult genre forever:
Hinton, earnest teenager that she was, wrote to reveal the universality of her Greasers, just as Wright and Ellison did for African-Americans, or Paley and Roth did for Jews.
The review noted, however, that Ms. Hinton also borrowed techniques from other classic books. Mr. Peck writes that these “echoes … soften the challenging nature of the book’s subject matter by wrapping it in references, tropes and language familiar to its adolescent readers, even as they alleviate the fears of those readers’ too-earnest parents.”
For readers in 2017, is Ms. Hinton’s novel still relevant?
Read the essay Ms. Hinton wrote for The Times in 1967 about young adult fiction, and see how much of it still rings true. Then, create an annotated bibliography or a library display of contemporary Y.A. novels that owe a debt to her work because they capture the realities of life for today’s 21st-century teenagers, or for “outsiders” or any kind. What would you include? Why?
Part of what takes Ponyboy and Johnny beyond stereotypes of gang members is their sensitivity, manifest most memorably in their allusion to Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”
How has Johnny’s advice to “stay gold” come to permeate our pop culture? Use Google’s search to look at the many ways this phrase has been used to imagine, advertise, joke and encourage. What patterns do you observe in these homages? (Note: if you want to stay in the author’s good graces, never say “stay golden.”)
Then, consider how poetry still resonates with young people today. For example, watch this video from Favorite Poem Project, in which a young man from South Boston reads a Gwendolyn Brooks poem that shares some of the themes in this lesson plan.
What are your favorite poems? How do they resonate with things you see around you in the world today? Our long-running Poetry Pairing series matches classic poems with Times reporting. What poem and Times article would you pair?
When “The Outsiders” first came out, the publishers did not want to use S. E. Hinton’s first name, Susan, because it might put off boys who would not normally read books written by women. To this day, many readers assume that because the voice of the novel is male, so is the author.
In what ways have you, like the characters in “The Outsiders” and Ms. Hinton herself, defied stereotypes — of your age group, race, religion, gender or anything else that contributes to who you are? Write a personal essay, or create something, like this artist did, that confronts those expectations.
Outsiders in the World Today
Who are the outsiders in your community? In the world at large right now? How can “outsider thinking” enhance or endanger a community?
To investigate questions like these, put the word “outsider” or “outsiders” into Times search and see what comes up. You might find anything from an article about The New High School Outsiders to a video about innovation called The Power of Outsiders to an Op-Ed called Enter the Age of the Outsiders to a review of the annual Outsider Art Fair in New York City.
Discuss your findings with a small group. What do you notice? What patterns or clichés do you find in these reports about those identified as outsiders? Which of these pieces seem most interesting? What stories seem to be missing?
Finally, consider what stories of outsiders in your own community need telling, and brainstorm ways they could be told.
‘Sometimes the Tough Teen is Quietly Writing Stories’
Part of what makes the ending of “The Outsiders” so memorable is that we discover Ponyboy is writing his own story to save his grade in high school and to give an untold perspective he believes people must hear.
The Young Adult author Matt de la Peña helps us see from a similar perspective in more contemporary times in his piece “Sometimes The Tough Teen Is Quietly Writing Stories.” In it, he tells a story about a boy he meets when he does a reading at a school — someone the principal calls “a real instigator”:
After the session, Joshua came to the front of the stage and asked to speak with me in private. He told me he was born in a prison and that he’d been held back in school. Twice. He didn’t belong in junior high anymore. It made him feel like a loser. But he wanted me to know that he wrote stories sometimes. About San Antonio gangs. When he asked if I’d be willing to read the one he’d just finished, I told him I’d love to. “But you’ll have to get it to me quick,” I said. “They’re about to shuttle me to the next school.”
What questions would you like to ask Mr. de la Peña? Ms. Hinton? Both are active on Twitter, though it might be a good idea to scroll through their feeds first before you pose questions they may have answered many times in the past.
Curating an “Outsiders” Museum
“Once you’re a fan of ‘The Outsiders,’ you’re always a fan of ‘The Outsiders,’ writes Hayley Krischer in “Why ‘The Outsiders’ Lives On: A Teenage Novel Turns 50.”
In fact, one 48-year-old fan loves the book so much he wants to turn the house pictured above into an “Outsiders” museum:
On a particularly windy day in the Crutchfield neighborhood here, the writer S. E. Hinton was touring the renovations of the future Outsiders House museum. The rundown Craftsman bungalow was where the Curtis brothers — Darry, Sodapop and Ponyboy — lived in the 1983 Francis Ford Coppola movie based on Ms. Hinton’s book “The Outsiders.”
The book, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, was arguably one of the most influential young adult books of its time, and leading this tour was the self-described fanboy Danny O’Connor, 48, who made his own contribution to pop-culture history as a member of the 1990s hip-hop group House of Pain.
Mr. O’Connor has been on a quest to find artifacts to include in the museum, amassing a collection of memorabilia from the movie, vintage photographs and hard-to-find editions of the book. Next on his search list, he told Ms. Hinton, 68, was a claw-foot tub like the one 18-year-old Rob Lowe (Sodapop Curtis in the movie) stepped out of with just a towel wrapped around his waist.
If you were curator of the “Outsiders” museum, what would you want to feature? What exhibits would you have? How would you set it up? What special events might you offer? Sketch your ideal “Outsiders” museum, or create a sample exhibit for it. How might your museum or exhibit both satisfy longtime fans of the novel and pique the interest of a new generation?
Friends and Family
In a post entitled “When Friends Are Like Family,” Deborah Tannen illuminates why, like the characters in “The Outsiders,” we take some friends into our closest circle and how they become like family. As Ms. Tannen points out, “Holes left by rejected (or rejecting) relatives — or left by relatives lost to distance, death or circumstance — can be filled by friends who are like family.”
Write a personal letter to a friend who has become like a family member to you. Just like Ms. Tannen does in her article, use specific anecdotes and memories to express to this person why you see them as family.
More Text to Text Lesson Plans on Young Adult Literature
‘Speak’ and ‘Waking Up to the Enduring Memory of Rape’
‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’ and ‘On the Reservation and Off, Schools See a Changing Tide’
‘The Giver’ and ‘The Dark Side of Young Adult Fiction’
‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and ‘The Case for Delayed Adulthood’
‘The Book Thief’ and ‘Auschwitz Shifts From Memorializing to Teaching’
‘Lord of the Flies’ and ‘A Fight Club for Flies’
Do you have ideas for matching an excerpt from an often-taught work of literature with a Times article? Let us know in the comments.
More About “The Outsiders” and S.E. Hinton
Timeline | Fifty Years Ago, a Teenager Wrote the Best-Selling Young Adult Novel of All Time
The New Yorker | S. E. Hinton and the Y.A. Debate
Letters of Note | ‘The Outsiders’Continue reading the main story