Johnny, played with strong emotion last Friday by Grand Forks Secondary School student Luella Faulkner, offered the most famous line of The Outsiders (book and play) to an upset Ponyboy Curtis (played by student Anna Ham): “Stay gold, Ponyboy.”
It’s a reference to poet Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” a poem that appears on its surface to lament the loss of fleeting innocence and beauty. In asking Ponyboy to stay gold, fellow Greaser Johnny, who is writing from his deathbed, is asking his young friend to not get sucked in to the difficult life that he’s headed for. Poor, parentless and raised in a supportive though rough group of peers who have lived through hardship, Ponyboy represents the ticket out. He’s smart – so smart that his brothers work to save up for his college fund, so smart that those around him can see that they need to push him to succeed beyond their neighbourhood. He’s also young enough to still have a chance to reach beyond what feels to be the fate of a Greaser – hard work, and scraps, mostly.
In a world of social divides, Ponyboy sits on the poor side with the Greasers and is consequently, naturally, pitted against the wealthy kids – the “Socs.” One group’s very existence threatens the other’s, to the point where they defend their turf with knuckles and knives. Only when one of them dies do they have a brief détente before engaging in an all-out rumble again, resorting to old ways.
The story is a lesson in dialogue and understanding. From Ponyboy’s point of view, Bob, a Soc and therefore the enemy, was an awful person always looking for a fight and targeting the Greasers any chance he could get. After Bob is stabbed in a skirmish, his girlfriend Cherry presents him differently. He was spoiled by his parents, she says, and was consequently always looking – hoping – for someone to say no to him, to put him in his place. He drank too heavily just to get a reaction out of his parents, but they just blamed themselves. He was troubled, in his own way.
You’d have never known that if Cherry wasn’t an accepting person, a good go-between for the two rival gangs. It’s not that her character is that of a fence-sitter, trying to stay out of the fray. Rather, she acts as a voice of reason between two groups blinded by their animosity.
The Outsiders doesn’t explain what gave rise to the disgust the Greasers and Socs have for one another. They’re from two very different socio-economic groups, sure, but they go to the same school, movie theatre, and frequent other shared spots in town too.
In both versions (the novel and the play), the narrator drops us into the fray in medias res – right in the middle of the action, insofar as the groups are already at peak hatred for each other – and doesn’t suggest that attempts to mend divides or foster understanding have been made. It’s war, it’s us-versus-them, it’s primal and it’s replicated in society today.
That last part is the ultimate sucker punch, because so many of us have read or interacted with the story at some point, likely during our high school careers. (The book was published in 1967 and is still read in many classrooms today). So many of us have had the chance to understand the dangers of classifying, othering and stereotyping and allow us to recognized the doors that those ideas slam on dialogue and understanding, but we find ourselves relapsing to that state of nature – a state of survival – often, nevertheless.
I thank the drama students of GFSS for reminding me to be patient and understanding and to seek nuances and individuality in people, and I hope my fellow audience members walked away with similar feelings after last weekend’s performances. We can all look for the gold in people – we’ve all had our own, though sometimes we lose it.
The beautiful thing about Frost’s poem is that, though he writes that “Nothing gold can stay,” he’s writing about a leaf – a living thing that can foster regrowth and will itself be replaced by another fleetingly gold copy of itself. Just because we’ve lost gold or can’t see it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there or isn’t coming back.