There are Perks to Being a Wallflower, but...

It ought not be your identity. 


First, the perks…

I was assigned to read this book during a class I took during seminary called the 'Psychology of Adolescents.' It was one of the most formative courses I studied in seminary. Even to this day, I am surprised by how much I retained from the class and implement on a weekly basis. Each week of the class, our professor, Robert Dykstra, assigned us to read adolescent therapy texts alongside of teenage novels, as a way of marrying study with practice. One of those books was The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

The story enthralled me! I read the whole novel from cover to cover in about 2 hours, a record for my typically slow pace. Everything about the book captured my imagination and heart. Though the setting of the book takes place in 1991, I identified with some aspects of every character. Truly, it reads for every high school teenager, and bears a true witness to the plight of the high school experience. For a full review of the storyline from a Christian perspective, see the article published by Christianity Today on 28 September 2012. It is a great read and offers a more thorough treatment of the plot than I am able to present in this post.

The protagonist is a high school freshman named, Charlie, and the opening scene of the story is the first day of his freshman year of high school, deemed by freshman in my high school group: 'the first day of hell!' Charlie is beset by psychological trauma and bouts of depression that cause him to feel lonely and without hope, often eating lunch by himself in the cafeteria, the death nail for any high school student.

During a serendipitous encounter at a high school football game, he meets two Seniors, Patrick and Sam, who become his closest friends and confidants. What is their connection point? The three of them, along with their misfit friends, are damaged goods. The posse includes an openly gay student, an angry feminist Buddhist, a girl with a widespread sexual history, a kleptomaniac, and Charlie who (spoiler alert) was molested by a relative. In fact, the first words that Sam tells Charlie upon welcoming him into the crew are, "Welcome to the Band of Misfit Toys." She also later tells him after a nervous breakdown, "Let's go be psychopaths together."

These two lines together make up the first perk of being a wallflower: community. These kids without one another feel the deepest loneliness in the world, having no one with whom to connect and understand them. Nothing throws a teenager into the throngs of despair quicker than feeling like an outcast in your own environment. This story depicts so well what the qualities of a redemptive and restorative community in action looks like. Sam and Patrick see Charlie for who he is: a misfit toy. Indeed, he is just that… but Sam and Patrick now this because they are, too. Both of them hold the mirror to Charlie andmodel for him what his identity means as a misfit toy. His community embraces him for his faults, his past, and naiveté, and teaches him how to most fully live into this identity.

And together, his crew offers him the second perk of being a wallflower: to be known. Charlie, like every human begin, wants to be known — inside and out. During the scene at the football game where he met Sam and Patrick, I asked myself: what compelled him to attend the football game in the first place? Why would he risk such an emotional investment to attend? And then I realized, he wanted to participate. He wanted to be known and be seen and be part of something bigger than him. He hoped for the chance of talking about the game with someone on Monday morning, and Sam, Patrick, and the band of misfit toys offered him just that: a place for him to talk, be heard, and participate. Ultimately, the gang provided Charlie a setting for others to know him and also know others.

Yet, all of this beckons the question, however, of what happens next? Is the band of misfit toys the final stop for Charlie in high school? Surely not. Admittedly the reader is left feeling a sense of satisfaction at the end of the tale, but what about Charlie's sophomore year? What about his college years? What about his professional adult life? What about when Charlie has a family of his own and must endure the stress and challenge of children? Or most relevant, what happens when Charlie eventually matures and develops away from the misfit toy brigade and into a new clique?

I want to suggest that his friends, albeit important and life-saving for Charlie, offer mere glimpses into what a restorative and redemptive community of authenticity looks like, not a viable identity. His community offers hope and feels like eternity… in the immediate. Tomorrow, however, brings an entirely new set of challenges. As Charlie realized, his identity as such did not produce hope or meaning for every aspect of life. Quite the contrary, it sometimes bred additional confusion, baggage, and strife.

I understand that we need footholds, especially teenagers, who endure transition and development of almost every kind during high school. At the end of the day, we need someplace to hang our hat. The plane must eventually land. Critics may suggest that participating in the misfit toy bunch saved Charlie's life, and we ought to feel satisfied about that. But I am not, at least not entirely. The glimpses and glimmers of Charlie's community point to something much more grander — much more enduring. It points to the redemption and restoration of the Gospel, one that sustains through any conflict or crisis of identity, one that grounds us in a narrative of real peace, life, and relationship! The Gospel is our identity, and the pathway through which we know and enjoy real community, redemption, and restoration.

When we read the story of these characters through this lens, everything about their community and friendship points to Jesus Christ (minus the drugs and sex, of course) And this gives me hope that in a post-modern, post-Christian context like ours, the presence of community, acceptance, and restoration amongst teenagers become markers of the Gospel for them, most notably those who feel like misfit toys.

QUESTION: What other Perks of Being a Wallflower point to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in your context?