Conversations Made Possible: Classism

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“Why are the socs so mean to the greasers?” one student asks.

We just finished chapter two of The Outsiders. This is the required whole-class text for seventh grade at our school. We listened to chapter one together to hear the southern voice of Ponyboy, to listen for his narratorial voice, to notice how he tells us all about the people in his story right from the start — from his point of view. For chapter two, we listened and read (followed along). I asked students to use sticky note to mark page numbers and phrases they wanted to talk about when we finished. I told them I wouldn’t stop the audio, wouldn’t interrupt the chapter because, most of the time, authors answer our questions if we stay with the story a bit longer.

Now we’ve finished that chapter and have about seven minutes to chat before the bell rings. I am curious what they noticed, what they cared about enough to note, what they’d bring up for the discussion.

“Ideas?” I say inviting the class to respond to the student.

“The socs want to show their dominance over the greasers,” one says.

“Yeah, but they already have dominance; they’re the rich kids,” another says.

“It’s because they’re from different classes,” says another.

“Okay, but why, when Ponyboy and Cherry were getting snacks at the drive-in, didn’t the socs give Ponyboy a hard time there?” one student asks.

“Because Pony was with one of them – Cherry. Maybe the socs respect Cherry, so Pony was safe at that point,” a student suggests.

“It seems like that part at the movie was Cherry’s first interaction with a greaser and Ponyboy’s, too. He was saying things like ‘they are not our kind.’ And that girl Marcia was saying how Ponyboy and Johnny are not ‘dirty.’ I think that’s why the socs don’t like the greasers,” one student says coming back to the original question.

I am listening and deciding if my voice would enhance or disrupt the flow of this discussion, but I am hearing words like “them” and “our kind” at this point. I want to help them name what I think they are getting at: prejudice and classism. I know students know the word “racist,” and I want to extend it to classist, but I am not sure if interjecting here will take us on a tangent that will lose the powerful conversation happening without me. I give it a go because I want to emphasize what S.E. Hinton is asking about humanity with and through Ponyboy.

“Thanks for bringing us back to the initial question.  I can tell you are all improving on your literary conversation skills! We are getting at deeper meaning here, right? You are already uncovering what’s at the heart of this book: classism. You’ve heard the word “racism,” yes? What does that mean — racism?” I ask.

“Judging someone based on their race,” one student says.

“Not liking someone because of their skin color – like MLK said,” says another student.

I say, “Yeah, so you have the race part, but the judging part or prejudging someone based on appearance or preconceived ideas about whole groups of people — that’s prejudice. Think pre and judge. How is that different from racism?”

“It’s a belief that one race is better,” one student says.

“Right, part of that is prejudice, but it is a belief that one race is superior. What if we apply that to class and what’s happening between the greasers and socs?”

“The socs believe they are superior.”

“And the greasers? Ponyboy? Does he believe that? Does he believe the socs are better than the greasers?” I ask.

“Yeah,” says one student. “Like they have no change in winning against the socs. Even if the greasers won a fight or fought back, the socs would still have more money, be more respected.”

“So is Ponyboy a classist? Is he prejudice?” I ask. “What other questions is S.E. Hinton asking us to ponder?”

Bell rings.