I checked out Susane Colasanti’s Keep Holding On from my local library and read the novel in one sitting. I’m not sure what possessed me to pick it up since I don’t usually read YA contemporary fiction (I’m a SF girl), except that I reviewed Something Like Fate and I really liked her writing. I read the first few pages and I was immediately hooked when I saw the protagonist eating lunch alone. And so I pushed aside my giant pile of unread ARCs and two review books and read Keep Holding On.
High school junior Noelle marks a big X over each day on the calendar. She’s counting down the days until graduation — when she can get away from her awful mother and the bullies at her high school. For Noelle, each day is a struggle. There’s no food in her house to even make a meager sandwich, something the mean kids in the cafeteria notice. Noelle’s mother — who works a minimum-wage job and barely makes enough for rent, let alone enough money to properly stock the fridge — is bitter and takes out her anger on Noelle in the form of flat-out neglect. Not only does her mother not buy her necessities like tampons and clothes, but the woman barely addresses her at all. And so Noelle goes to school with mayo and mustard sandwiches on stale bread. She wears cheap oversize t-shirts to hide her protruding ribs. She doesn’t let her best friend come over to her apartment and she won’t entertain the thought that popular, kind Julian might actually like her. Most upsetting of all, although certainly not shocking, is that her teachers don’t acknowledge the bullying or try to stop the bullies. She truly feels like no one cares about her. Told in Noelle’s first-person point-of-view, it’s a heart-wrenching read.
I had no idea the book was based on Colasanti’s struggles with bullying as a kid until I went onto her website and read her biography. Turns out Colasanti and I have a lot in common, and I’d like to think that if she and I had known each other in real life, we would have been friends. First off, we’re both Jersey girls from affluent towns where we weren’t the rich kids. And, like Colasanti, I too was bullied.
From fifth grade right up until I wore my cap and gown at high school graduation, I was picked on for everything from my clothes to my weird sense of humor to my nerdiness. I even went to my senior prom by myself, and that was by default, not by choice. (Side story: A girl came up to me at prom and said, “I wish I came by myself. My date is ignoring me.”)
Things I was teased over were, at the time, agonizing. Fifth grade was the first time I became aware of clothing trends being a big deal. In fact, I remember having a favorite t-shirt that my mom bought at Bradlees (remember that store?). A “friend” said to me, “You know you’ve worn that three times this week.” Had I? Why did it matter when it had also been washed three times? It was the first time I remember being embarrassed about my clothes. In seventh grade, I got hassled on the bus every. single. day. And it wasn’t just me. My friends were also teased and harassed and we were each bestowed a nickname by the bullies. Mine was “piggy” because of my nose (It’s big and I’m Jewish and I’ve learned to love it). You’d think we would have banded together and taken on the bullies, but we all just sat there and took the abuse. Freshmen year of high school I was teased and intimidated by a girl on the softball team, a girl who was on academic probation and couldn’t play in games. I suppose she bullied me because I was a good student (although a lousy softball player) even though earlier that year I offered to share my locker with her when she was new to the school and hadn’t been assigned one yet. Also that year, I also got sexually harassed in my business class. Daily. I was the only girl in the class and the teacher, nearing her retirement, did nothing to stop the bullying.
My high school experiences weren’t all bad. There were things I loved about high school — senior year English, Battle of the Bands, my all-girls Sweet Sixteen, and even my prom where I went stag. I had plenty of friends and good times too. Eventually the bullies stopped saying things when I stopped giving a shit about what they said. I also had faith that things would be better when I went to college. And they did.
Originally, I was just going to write up this post as a book review. Susane Colasanti has written a highly accessible narrative in which readers will identify with either the bully or the bullied. I didn’t really want to get personal about my experiences, not because I worry about calling out the bullies (I didn’t name them), who I imagine live fairly mundane lives at this point, but because I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me. (To be fair, I was only ever picked on — the name-calling never escalated to physical confrontations.) These experiences have shaped who I am today. They are the reason I’d prefer to teach my sons kindness and empathy over a good batting stance. They’re the reason I don’t keep my mouth shut when a mean customer berates a teenaged grocery cashier for not moving fast enough (oh, that happened).
Truth is, I have a really awesome life. I’m married to an amazing man who is kind, funny and exceptionally smart. I have two beautiful kids and a minivan with heated seats (and you’d be a fool to think that heated seats aren’t awesome). My book is going to be published. All roads led here, even if those roads weren’t always smoothly paved.
So, if there are any teenagers reading this right now who are being bullied by insecure assholes — keep in mind Dan Savage’s wonderful campaign that ‘it gets better.’ And not only does it get better, but it also gets great.
Hang in there.