Geography Club was a book I picked up over the summer knowing full well that it was aimed at an audience much younger than me. I’m comfortable reading books meant for YA and even MG audience, and I would say this one falls somewhere in between. It’s definitely a novel I would have picked up and enjoyed in sixth or seventh grade, and as an adult, it’s a little light on the drama for me.
Part of me couldn’t help but feel that it’s a good thing though. The possibility of stumbling across a sweet, coming of age book that deals with the struggle of being a LBGTQA teen is slim. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard kids that I’ve worked with complaining about the fact that all the books that even tangentially represent them end with depression, critical injury, or death. While those books are certainly important (because sadly, those stories do represent the reality for too many teenagers), it is not the only story by a long shot.
When I was in high school, I had at least a dozen friends who had come out, not just to close friends and family, but to the school community. They were as happy as any other kid I knew, which is to say…some of the time life was good, and some of the time, it sucked. Relationships went south. Friendships were built over common interests and then allowed to slip away. Classes were hard or a snap or an escape from a difficult home life. Basically, everyone I knew, regardless of orientation, was just really busy. Rehearsals, soccer practice, Junior World Council, swim meets – endless hours, all filled to the brim.
Looking back, I feel exhausted for my younger self, but in the moment, it was ordinary. And honestly, I was less concerned with who wanted who than I was with meeting deadlines. Well, that’s not true. In locker rooms and green rooms and class rooms, we stuffed our entire social lives into five-minute between-the-bell increments. “Love” could rise and fall over the course of a single day.
This is not to say I don’t expect that relationships were harder for some of my friends than they were for me. I just don’t recall bullying being linked specifically to sexual orientation. I also don’t remember the teen mothers or the hearing-impaired students (our school had inclusive programs for both) being singled out, although it would be impossible to believe it didn’t happen. To me though, it seemed like bullying was targeted at a certain type of kid, a person who, through an unfortunate combination of circumstances, was an easy victim; in Geography Club, that kid’s name is Brian Bund.
While it’s critical to have stories about the Brian Bunds of the world (he’s actually my favorite character in this book), I also like finding a novel that’s focused less on the more on the ordinary foibles of adolescence. Yes, Russel Middlebrook is a gay teenager struggling with the decision to come out, but he’s also casually cruel in order to protect himself. He’s a clueless jock, and he’s a guy dying for acceptance when the only thing he believes sets him apart is also the thing he fears people knowing.
When it comes to deciding what sort of person he’s going to be, Russel has to choose between remaining silent in the face of hatred, or taking a stand. It’s not a cavalier decision to make, no matter how simple it may seem at a distance. I found myself often thinking of a well-known quote from a speech by Martin Nieöller that my best friend’s parents had up on their fridge throughout my childhood:
First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
I remember wondering whether I would speak out to protect someone at great risk to myself, and I saw, over and over, how I did not. It’s incredibly hard to stand against bullies, against a frightening majority, especially during the fragile years of adolescence when everything seems impossibly significant. It gives me hope, even all these years later, to read about teenagers who choose to do it, who set an example of confidence in compassion. It doesn’t require perfection, but it does mean taking a risk, then living with the consequences.
For more about Brent Hartinger, go here.
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