Teaching Life Lessons : It's a book about suicide, sex and teen-age pain. But despite the fuss it's causing, 'Ordinary People' helps kids open up.


Giggles. That's what she gets for uttering the F-word. Naturally. Hands on the hips of her faded jeans, her lipsticked smile starting to crack, Lucy Swindell is perched casually at the podium, calling the swim coach " a damn, picky bastard ," making snide comments about the new girl's butt. She saunters around, ticking off a string of forbidden phrases--words that rhyme with "class," "spit," "witch" and, of course, "luck."

Now the teen-agers are laughing out loud, trying to swallow nervous snickers as this 51-year-old woman--their teacher, for God's sake--forges ahead: " It wasn't exactly an orgy of pleasure for me, you dumb. . . ."


Not exactly the vocabulary expected from a high school English teacher, but Swindell is just reading aloud from the assigned text, Judith Guest's novel "Ordinary People."

Swindell has been teaching from this book at Kennedy High in La Palma, an Orange County suburb, for more than a decade. For just as long, people have been telling her--and teachers across the nation--not to.

"Ordinary People" is among the most frequently challenged books nationwide, says the Washington-based constitutional liberties defense group People for the American Way. Last year, California led the nation with more censorship struggles than any other state--one of them concerning "Ordinary People" occurred in the Anaheim Union High School District.

To delve beneath the political debate, The Times spent a month studying the book alongside Swindell's students. A reporter watched classroom sessions, then read students' personal reflections in daily journals, formal essays, and poems exploring the characters' feelings.

Published in 1976 and later made into a film that won an Academy Award for best picture, "Ordinary People" is a 263-page bestseller about 17-year-old Conrad Jarrett, who grew up pampered in suburban Chicago then lost his big brother, Buck, in a boating accident.

Racked with guilt over Buck's death, the teen-ager slits his wrist and is committed to a psychiatric hospital. Despite problems in communicating with his harried tax attorney father and self-centered socialite mother, the boy survives. But it remains unclear whether the family will.

So what's the big fuss?

Well, there's the frank talk about suicide. Fights between parent and child, including some harsh back talk; musings about masturbation and premarital intercourse between Con and his girlfriend. Plus, the teen-agers in the book talk like teen-agers, which means slang and swearing.

Swindell says she teaches the book to help build cross-generational discussion of dysfunctional families and teen-age estrangement. That's just what keeps it on the firing line. Critics dislike Guest's portrayal of teen-age and family life and fear that reading about the Jarretts' inability to communicate will stifle dialogue between teen-agers and parents rather than foster it.

"It has no place in a teen-ager's hands in an English class," said Treva Brown of Anaheim, a single mother of four who led the local protest against the novel.

Brown lists 26 reasons "Ordinary People" doesn't belong on district- and state-approved reading lists. Language, sexuality and suicide are her top concerns, but she also contends that the story is boring, the author is unimportant and the vocabulary is too simple to merit inclusion in the curriculum.

"I raised (my) kid to be a fine young man who doesn't curse, who doesn't swear, who believes that sex before marriage is wrong," Brown said. "I put him in the public school system expecting them to go beyond what I had given him, and they give him this nonsense. It was a slap in my face and a slap in my son's face."

The Anaheim school board and the state Department of Education have rejected Brown's request to ban the book, and a recall movement against several Anaheim school board members failed in April. But the controversy continues, with Brown promising to revive the issue in next fall's election.

Meanwhile, "Ordinary People" is still being taught.


Swindell's sophomore English classes sit in a four-row horseshoe, surrounded by posters praising racial unity, world peace and environmentalism.

One front-row seat contains Sean Temple, a hockey lover whose writing shows sharp wit and intellect. Nearby is Mike Caira, who flirts a lot with the girls behind him, then flirts with Swindell to escape punishment by detention. Then there's Brian Castles, a bright boy whose father also teaches English at Kennedy.

Kristen Vetica is quiet and seems unmoved by "Ordinary People," but her journal reveals something else.

Swindell's yearlong syllabus includes the requisite Shakespeare, "Julius Caesar"; the classic English-class tomes "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Lord of the Flies"; "Fahrenheit 451," Ray Bradbury's futuristic tale of book burning; Lorraine Hansbury's play "A Raisin in the Sun"; and "Ordinary People."

Some books are there for lessons in literary structure, vocabulary, character development, metaphor and narrative style. "Ordinary People," she says, provides life lessons.

They begin with the title.

"One of the things we're going to determine in this novel is that there is no such thing as ordinary people," the teacher says. "We're all ordinary, but we're all extraordinary in one way."

Swindell knows that relatively few teen-agers will lose a sibling to tragedy, but that most have trouble talking to their parents. Only a handful ever step inside a psychiatric hospital, but all of them shudder before their first date and stress out over extracurricular activities. Some, like Conrad, are in therapy. Even more, like Conrad, have fistfights with former friends. They've lied to their parents, kept secrets and worried about the changes in their bodies.

One morning, Swindell takes a poll: What are teen-agers' biggest problems?

Of 33 students in one class, 17 name drugs as their No. 1 worry. Eleven say sex. Five: parents. Three: violence. Four: depression.

"Peer pressure?" Swindell suggests. They all nod.

Later, writing in the journals Swindell requires them to keep all year, the students list their personal troubles. Too young to drive; too poor to afford auto insurance. There are divorce survivors, and veterans of switching schools--or switching countries.

One boy lives here; his parents work in Taiwan. A girl has an alcoholic stepfather. Another's mother "works two jobs and when she comes home she sleeps. We don't have time for each other."

A white student's mother won't allow her to date blacks. Another student's father doesn't allow dating at all.


The students are lost in the opening pages.

To have a reason to get up in the morning, it is necessary to posses s a guiding principle. A belief of some kind. A bumper sticker, if you will. People in cars on busy freeways call to each other Boycott Grapes , comfort each other Honk If You Love Jesus , joke with each other Be Kind to Animals--Kiss a Beaver . They identify, they summarize, they antagonize with statements of faith.

Guest confuses them by alternating narrators, switching between Conrad and his father from one chapter to the next. They hate Conrad's stream-of-consciousness blabber. Many of the cultural references seem dated--they don't get it.

A week passes, and half the class hasn't cracked a page; the assignment calendar says they should be through Chapter 15, but the students admit they are on Chapter 3, maybe Chapter 4. There aren't enough books for everyone, so Swindell offers 25 bonus points to people who bring their own, and keeps begging the district for more copies. She keeps reading aloud, and devotes a class to silent reading.

Arms folded across his book bag, Sean is silent, but not reading. Sean is an "A" student, but "Ordinary People" strikes him as, well, kind of ordinary.

"I guess it's worth reading, but I don't know if anybody in this class really wants to read (anything)," he said. "Most people are probably thinking it's kind of lame."

In the book, Con is a very troubled boy, stuck in a complicated life.

He missed final exams getting shock therapy in the hospital, so now he's stuck in junior classes--his friends are all seniors. He can't stand his once-beloved swim team; it reminds him of his dead brother. Worst of all, Conrad thinks his mother wishes he had died instead of Buck when the boys got caught in a storm while sailing.

In class, Swindell focuses on the family relationships.

One morning, the students sit with markers and white paper, brainstorming in groups, making lists of "things that tear us apart as a family" and "what holds us together." Another day, the groups prepare skits depicting a typical day in the life of various stereotypical families.

For the first major writing project in connection with the novel, each student interviews a relative, then writes an autobiographical family history.

"I want to learn more about your family," Swindell says. "I want you to learn more about your family."

For many, it is the first time in a while they have spoken to their parents about school--or about anything, really, beyond negotiating curfew or borrowing the car.

A boy who failed English in the fall is the first to turn in the essay; his mother calls Swindell, jubilant, saying: "My son actually talked to me about an assignment!" Another student writes 28 pages.

Kristin Jondle and Ronnie Ellison usually stride into class together, sometimes grab a smooch before the bell rings, then sit side by side in the back row. As the teacher talks, they hold hands across desks. She leans her head on his shoulder and fiddles with his fingers.

Their smiling eyes lock whenever Swindell talks about Conrad and his girlfriend, Jeanine, whenever the classroom discussion turns to dating and romance and sex.

Conrad's head is on his arm, one hand curved around her breast. . . . His heart floats inside his chest. His skin feels branded everywhere that she has touched him . . . . Swindell reads from Chapter 30 as the nervous laughter and snickers begin anew. Gently, he asks her, because now he is her protector against the world, "Did I hurt you?"

Kristin and Ronnie have been dating about a year, and have not gone all the way. Since reading "Ordinary People," they've been bugging Swindell and her boyfriend to join them on a double date. And the book has helped the young couple discuss sex in a new way, Kristin says.

"You need sex out in the open. Teen-agers these days are more explorative," she writes in her journal. "Parents don't want to talk about it, so books or magazines are teen-agers' only source."


"Suicide," a student calls out, "is a permanent solution to a temporary problem."

They've finished the book, and psychologist Sharon Garrett is visiting class for the day, trying to debunk some common myths. Like the notion that if somebody says they want to commit suicide, they're probably not serious. Or that once people try to kill themselves, they never get over suicidal feelings. Or that suicide is random, arising without warning.

"I tried so many different things. Starvation, a blade, and other stuff, too," one student writes in her journal, recalling her own suicide attempts several years before. "I even tried to overdose on Tylenol. I guess I just wanted attention and I couldn't get any because of my attitude problem.

"To even think about it now I feel so stupid. I'm glad I didn't kill myself."

Conrad seems glad, too, until he reads in the newspaper that a friend from the psychiatric hospital has actually killed herself. Reeling with pain, the boy's thoughts race back to the boat accident, his bloody suicide attempt, and his long hospital stay.

He walks swiftly, without direction. To calm himself. To get away from dreams, because there are worse ones and he doesn't want to remember them, doesn't want to think at all, less intense, less intense, but how to do it?

Kristen Vetica, a 15-year-old basketball star, gets glassy-eyed as Swindell reads the frightful passage. She's thinking of her own friend, who shot himself to death while Kristen was reading the novel.

"There will always be somebody that was going to commit suicide and there's nothing that anybody can do about it," she sighs. "If you don't talk to anyone and tell what's going on then no one's ever going to know how you're feeling inside."

All of a sudden, the students have gotten into it. They bring in anecdotes of their own family life, their own alienation, their own curiosities about growing up.

"Finally a book we can relate to," one girl says. "A book to help us understand we're not alone."

Still, things get sticky.

Mike, a precocious student who gets good grades but doesn't like to pay attention, asks permission one morning to use profanity for a classroom exercise about family.

"We need to," the boy says. "Just a little bit, to get our point across." Holding up the book, Mike reminds the teacher how Guest employs racy language to make her characters more real, her story come alive. "How come they can but we can't?"

Now Swindell is giggling, like the class did that first day when she read the text aloud. "There's a difference," she says, shaking her head in a firm "no" to Mike's request, "between using it in a literary piece of work and using profanity to put people down."

Nearly 20 years after it was published, author Guest is surprised "Ordinary People" is still making headlines, especially for the language.

"The themes in the book are way more threatening than the language," Guest said of the book that earned an award for best first novel of 1976.

"The process of (Conrad's) recovery is also the story of his autonomy, learning that neither of his parents are perfect, and learning that he can't keep living by these rules that he doesn't believe in," Guest said. "That is the kind of material that some people think is subversive and threatening--you can cover that all by complaining about the language."

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