In Van Buren, Arkansas, one of my favorite places to travel, I was visiting a 7th grade reading classroom with a group of teachers. Unsurprisingly, a girl was reading a Pretty Little Liars book. As this franchise is one of my favorite, can’t-miss TV shows (and a bit of a guilty pleasure, too), I made a joke about it to the teachers. One teacher commented, “You know…I always ask kids, wouldn’t all the characters’ problems be solved if they just told an adult what was going on? Any adult?”
Yes. Yes, they would.
The Pretty Little Liars follow in the footsteps of almost every teen sleuth, adventurer, would-be vampire, and newly psychic debutante. They are tortured, stalked, and nearly murdered on a regular basis with nary a word to a parent, teacher, or cop. So many times, watching the show, it seems obvious to the point of absurdity that if the girls would just confide in someone, and probably many someones, about what was happening, they wouldn’t have to spend all their free time exploring abandoned warehouses and breaking into poorly-secured insane asylums.
To be fair, they do try, once or twice, asking for help, and it never goes well. I seem to recall a therapist in season 1 or 2 who wanted to help but was soon dispatched by “A”, the girls’ shadowy nemesis, and was never heard from again (or at least for a few seasons).
But the teacher’s comment resonated with me – and not just by reminding me that Pretty Little Liars is not the most realistic television show I spend time with. It also made me think about how this show is an exaggerated manifestation of what is inside a lot of kids’ heads. I remember, as a kid, and especially as a teenager, feeling quite convinced that the struggles I was facing were definitely different from everyone else’s, and so there was just no way a teacher or parent would have experienced the same thing. No. Way. It always seemed more logical to try to solve my own problems, no matter the cost, rather than to ask for help. Now, I wasn’t facing down an endlessly sneaky and inexplicably wealthy murderous foe, but hopefully, neither are our students.
What our students do face, though, can be just as bad – we all know the various “A”s that our kids deal with in their lives, from homelessness to bullying, from dealing with the kid who wants to cheat off their math test to coming out to homophobic parents. I don’t want kids to feel like they have to run to an adult for every little thing – agency is important! – but I also know that having someone in your corner for the tough stuff can make all the difference.
When we think about talk in the classroom, we often are thinking about academic talk. I know I am. But the other kind of talk that matters so much is the life talk that we hope kids will have – asking for help, sharing what’s on their mind, reaching out when the situation demands. I don’t know, but I suspect, that kids who know they can use their partners, their teachers, and their voices to solve the problem of how Kate DiCamillo creates characters may also be able to use those tools to solve the problem of how to stop crying after their parents split up. And if that’s the case, then our teaching has done even more than help kids deploy reading strategies and write with passion – it’s helped show kids a way to live.