The Musings of a Wallflower: Writing to Read, Part XI

book, books, close reading, read, reader, reading, Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

This post is a continuation of an ongoing subject. If you’re just tuning in, you should start at the first blog post on this subject, which you can read here.

Can I get a drumroll, please? *waits for drumroll, convinces herself someone somewhere cares enough to initiate the drumroll, pretends to hear said drumroll* It is with much, much ado that I announce we go into today’s post by finally looking at a new letter from Charlie. Letter two, in fact. Charlie starts letter two this way:

“I do not like high school. The cafeteria is called the ‘Nutrition Center,’ which is strange.”

We have only known Charlie for one letter, but it comes as no surprise to me whatsoever that Charlie does not like high school. Given I am trying to find a reason I have such a deep connection to this book after all these years, I tried to think back to how Charlie not liking high school might have made me feel when I first read it while I was actually attending high school. Initially, I thought, “Heck yeah, of course I loved Charlie because he didn’t like high school and I didn’t like high school!”

That’s not one-hundred percent accurate, though.

I did enjoy high school. What I enjoyed about high school was the going to high school, the act of removing myself from my home environment and going somewhere I could feel more comfortable with whoever I was going to turn out to be. It’s not that I had some terrible home life I had to escape from, or something like that. Many teenagers live in homes where there are expectations of them to fit into certain molds, though, even if other molds they might want to fit into instead are good, but not exactly what Mom and Dad want. I feel like that was the basis of my enjoyment in going to high school. I wanted to go find my mold without feeling judged.

However, the environment of high school, the experience of high school itself, was not my most pleasurable experience on the planet. So my point is, I suppose, that I don’t think I connected with Charlie as a character simply because he didn’t like high school. Our relationship went beyond that. I can see why Charlie would mention the cafeteria being dubbed the ‘Nutrition Center,’ too. That’s weird. Perhaps a little dishonest. Maybe the cafeteria should feed students and worry less about putting itself up on a pedestal. That’s a bit of a side tangent, though.

Charlie doesn’t spend a lot of time on fleshing out the weirdness that is the cafeteria, either. In fact, he jumps right into a description of another person he knew in high school who has made a transition—in this case, a transition that doesn’t involve suicide, like Michael’s did. Here’s what he tells us about Susan:

“There is this one girl in my advanced english class named Susan. In middle school, Susan was very fun to be around. She liked movies, and her brother Frank made her tapes of this great music that she shared with us. But over the summer she had her braces taken off, and she got a little taller and prettier and grew breasts. Now, she acts a lot dumber in the hallways, especially when boys are around. And I think it’s sad because Susan doesn’t look happy. To tell you the truth, she doesn’t like to admit she’s in the advanced english class, and she doesn’t like to say ‘hi’ to me in the hall anymore.”

Wow, this story about Susan doesn’t feel particularly unique, does it? Charlie is dealing with a typical middle school to high school transition—the plain girl gone pretty girl who changes her personality too once she has some ammo in the form of her looks. As I can already tell is the case with this book, Charlie’s reactions are much more important than the situation itself.

In fact, in this situation, Charlie reminds me a lot of a film character: Leland Fitzgerald from The United States of Leland. Leland’s major debilitating trait—the trait that causes him so much heartache and trouble throughout the film—is that he is so emotionally sensitive to others that the sadness consumes him in crippling ways. It would be easy for Charlie to focus on the way Susan’s change has affected him in negative way. After all, she is yet another friend who has transitioned away from him. While her transition is nowhere near as dramatic as Michael’s (who killed himself), it is a transition that leaves Charlie feeling abandoned and is therefore as important.

However, Charlie demonstrates an admirable trait in his reaction—empathy. He takes this girl, this Susan character, another person who could have served as a crucial lifeline for him in the hormonal windstorm of high school but instead disconnected from him, and looks at the feelings she is experiencing behind her new persona. How many of us can take a step back, separate ourselves from the pain another person is causing us, and consider how they might be feeling?

Charlie tells us all about her transition in detail just to sum it up in one simple line: “And I think it’s sad because Susan doesn’t look as happy.” Yes, this girl has changed he says, yes it hurts that she no longer says “hi,” yes she is contributing to my loneliness, but “Dear friend” (our unknown recipient of the letters), I want to tell you more than anything else that Susan no longer looks happy. Wow, Charlie. Wow. As I am marveling at how empathetic Charlie can be in light of his own circumstances, the connection between Susan and him becomes even stronger:

“When Susan was at the guidance counselor meeting about Michael, she said that Michael once told her that she was the prettiest girl in the whole world, braces and all. Then, he asked her to ‘go with him,’ which was a big deal at any school. They call it ‘going out’ in high school. And they kissed and talked about movies, and she missed him terribly because he was her best friend.”

Not only has Susan’s transition created a painful distance between Charlie and her, but she is also a connection to Michael. An important connection, it would seem. Since Michael was described as the kind of guy who didn’t have a lot of friends and we know by now Charlie doesn’t make a lot of friends himself, it is likely Susan was Charlie’s only other “friend,” however loosely the term may need to be applied. She grew up, got pretty, and left Charlie. Even though Michael killed himself and they both could have used a friend, a link to Michael, to prop them up, she instead left Charlie behind to pursue popularity.

Yet, Charlie focuses on Susan’s sadness and that’s what he tells the “friend” to whom he is writing.

While I could probably ramble on and on about Charlie further in this same post, this is a good stopping place in the letter for now. We’ll explore a few of Charlie’s earliest high school social experiences in the next post. In the meantime, if by some chance you’ve never seen United States of Leland, you can check out the trailer below.

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Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: Pocket Books, 1999. Print.

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