Somebody Else's Music

I just finished reading Somebody Else’s Music, by Jane Haddam. One of the best in her Gregor Demarkian series, it is distinctly darker than its predecessors. Most interesting to a high-school teacher is its theme of high school as real life. There’s plenty of popular fiction — both books and movies — exploring the sociology of life in high school, but this novel is about people in their mid-50s. Although they’ve been out of high school for nearly 40 years, their lives and relationships are still largely dominated by events that happened when they were teens. This theme is so relentless that at first I found it implausible, but then I thought about the setting and became convinced. The book takes place in a small town in north-central Pennsylvania, a town where a majority of residents stay for their entire lives. Most of the graduates of the local high school either go to a nearby community college or don’t go to college at all. Football players and cheerleaders are the preeminent social group, and the lines between who’s in and who’s out last for a lifetime. It’s very different from where I teach, in Weston, and where I live, in Boston, but that doesn’t make it unbelievable. In fact, it’s probably much more typically American than either Weston or Boston is.

Anyway, this story was clearly inspired by both Lord of the Flies and “The Lottery.” Haddam even makes the occasional explicit reference to one or the other, as well as implicit references such as memories of chanting “slit his throat.” It’s all a pretty grim picture of how teenagers (and people in general?) treat those who are different. I’m not so naive as to think that this portrayal is inaccurate — we have plenty of real-world examples that only reinforce it — but it certainly doesn’t impinge much on my everyday life. And yet… and yet… even at Weston High School one of the major social problems is bullying, according to recent surveys. But surely it is not condoned by the faculty, as it is in the present-day fictional high school of Somebody Else’s Music, where one of the alumnae of 1969 is now principal. (She explicitly blames a victim rather than the bulliers in an incident that I hope is not representative of any real high-school administration.) But then I think back to my own high-school experience, where it was absolutely clear that the faculty turned a blind eye to bullying. And what are present-day consequences of that acquiescence? Who can I remember among the students that I went to high school with in the sixties? The first one who comes to mind is George W. Bush…

Categories: Books, Teaching & Learning, Weston