Age: 13, Grade: 8
School Name: Salk School of Science, New York, NY
Educator: Ling Teo
Category: Critical Essay
The Community Within Ourselves
Belonging to a community improves self- appreciation, motivation, and even mental health. Having a sense of belonging is a human need, just like food and water, therefore, it is critical that one maintains a feeling of acceptance. In The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton as well as The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, the protagonists discover their self-worth while seeking community with others. Ponyboy and Lily are outcasts of their own worlds, but through self-realization, they discover their roles in society. In The Outsiders, Ponyboy is a greaser, but doesn’t feel like one of the gang. Similarly, In The Secret Life of Bees, Lily escapes with her “stand-in mother” Rosaleen and finds the acceptance she never got from her father. In both of these texts, the authors illustrate how a sense of community can only be found when you find it within yourself.
Without a feeling of acceptance, Ponyboy and Lily are insecure about who they are. On a journey to find connection with others, they both begin feeling unwanted and unworthy of others affection. In The Secret Life of Bees, Lily realizes she “had to get away” from her father, T.Ray, so she runs away to find the acceptance and love he never gave her. (Kidd, 41). While living with T.Ray, Lily is physically abused, but never gives up on a hope that one day she will be loved by someone who appreciates who she is. She run away to discover a place where that hope would pay off, and where she could be in a community. Similarly, Ponyboy doesn’t feel loved by his caregiver and brother, Darry. “I could never please him […] he just hollered at me.” (Hinton, 13). Ponyboy feels as if he can never live up to Darry’s high expectations, and therefore feels unloved. Without love, there is no way for Ponyboy to realize the great qualities within himself. Because of this, Ponyboy degrades his self-worth, and cannot think of himself as anything more than average. Likewise, In The Secret Life of Bees, Lily not only feels unloved by others, but by herself as well. Lily thinks of herself as “Unlovable.” (Kidd, 242). Lily to feeling unloved by herself shows inner self-doubt. Without confidence within herself, Lily has no way to find the love she searches for. She needs to love herself before she gets affection from others, otherwise she won’t be able to appreciate it the way she needs to. Without the love from others and themselves, Ponyboy and Lily cannot recognize and appreciate who they are. Without self-appreciation, both characters are lost in a void of self doubt, blocking them from appreciating what is already around them.
The only way for Lily and Ponyboy to feel accepted by the people around them is to truly embrace who they are, and realize what others have been showing them the whole time. They both have to accept their differences and acknowledge their strengths. Ponyboy begins to understand this soon after his best friend, Johnny, dies. In a letter, Johnny tells Ponyboy that he still has time to make himself what he wants to be. (Hinton, 178). Ponyboy then finds strength within himself and accepts that while he may be different from the gang, he still is one of the gang. Therefore, by acknowledging the love that is there, Ponyboy can discover his role in the society he lives in. Ponyboy finally sees that the love he craves was all around him the whole time. Similarly, Lily finds the community she was craving by just looking around herself, and realizing it has been there the whole time. She thinks to herself, “All these women, all this love.” (Kidd, 299). Just like Ponyboy, all Lily needs to do is notice the love around herself to get the sense of belonging that she wants. By realizing this, Lily finds her own role in society, and can finally appreciate her strengths. Lily couldn’t find this love was because she never got it in childhood, and therefore doesn’t know how to find it. When she finally learns to forgive her mom for not giving her love, a weight is lifted off her shoulders. She realizes her mother left her with good intention after all. (Kidd, 288). When Ponyboy and Lily find the love they had been longing for, they finally feel accepted by those they care about.
Community isn’t always about being part of a group, it’s about contributing to it in your own way. In The Secret Life of Bees, Lily may be the only white girl in her group of sisters, a group of religious women who take Lily under their wing, but when she learns that the sisters have always been backing her up, and always will, Lily realizes she was contributing in her own way, and didn’t have to have dark skin or fancy hats to be one of the sisters. (Kidd, 288). Likewise, the same thing happens in The Outsiders. Ponyboy may be different from the rest of his gang, but when he learns to accept this, he becomes aware of how his differences makes him one of the gang, not an outsider from it. While Ponyboy may “dig books and movies,” (Hinton, 2) like nobody else in the gang, he realizes that that is what make him unique and part of a gang of unique greasers like himself. Both Lily and Ponyboy go on journeys in a search for love. Throughout the course of this journey, they come to realize that they don’t need to fit in with the social norms to get the appreciation and connection they are looking for. When Lily finally realizes the amount of love she had been getting from the sisters, she can really appreciate how lucky she is to have them. “All these mothers […] they are the moons shining over me.” (Kidd, 299). On Lily’s whole journey, all she really wants is a mother figure. She craves the love and affection that other girls her age got from their mothers. Lily needed to recognize that she had already created love around herself, just not with the people she expected it from. Both characters learn to recognize what was all around them. All the love both Lily and Ponyboy had been searching for had been right there all along, and all they had to do was accept themselves and their differences to find it.
Ultimately, Lily and Ponyboy both start out on a quest for love, and end up finding it only when they look beyond society’s norms and accept what they can give back to others. Kidd and Hinton portray through character self-realization how the only way to find a role in society is to first accept and appreciate yourself. The value of self appreciation must be maintained in order to find community, because often when we lose confidence in ourselves, others lose confidence in us as well.