After getting about halfway through Keep Holding On by Susane Colasanti, an author whom I had never read before, I made a quick visit to her website to learn more about her. Going in, I had not realized how strongly the theme of bullying would play in this book, and many of the experiences that Noelle Wexler faces are eerily similar to things that happened to me any time from Kindergarten to 9th grade when I attended 3 different private parochial schools. Keep Holding On is based on Susane’s experiences growing up, and maybe even on some of the things she saw happen to her students when she taught for 10 years. I admire Susane for re-living those painful memories to create this wonderful book that will be a friend to teenage girls and boys going through similar situations at home and at school.
Noelle Wexler cannot wait to graduate from high school. She is saving every penny so that she can move out, go to college, and start over. Every day she goes to school, fearful of what will be said to her and what a few of her fellow students might do to her. Noelle has one good friend, Sherae, but even Sherae does not know how truly awful things are for Noelle at home. Her classmates pick on her because she writes song lyrics on her sneakers, assembles strange sandwiches for lunch because her mother doesn’t purchase enough groceries, and has had a few unfortunate incidents with wearing smelly/dirty clothes to school because her mother “forgot” to do her laundry. Warren and Carly see all of these less-than-perfect things about Noelle, and refuse to let her forget about them.
The only light for Noelle is her secretive relationship with Matt. They meet in an unused part of school grounds to make out during study hall. Noelle feels great when she is in Matt’s arms and their lips are locked, but she wants to take their relationship public. Matt isn’t ready to take that step with her, and Noelle figures he just needs more time. Meanwhile, Julian asks Noelle out on a date and she turns him down. She has had feelings for him forever, but thinks he is too good for her.
More than any other literary character I have encountered, Noelle is the one I identify with the most. I never had to deal with lack of clothing options and getting made fun of for fashion since uniforms were required at my school (Kindergarten through 7th grade), but there was a time in my life where I did not have perfect hygiene. Finally around 4th or 5th grade I corrected this (maybe earlier), but one time got shoved by another girl off a step and accused of smelling during choir because the girl next to me was actually the one who had not showered for what seemed like days. I also experienced a boy situation similar to Noelle’s with Trevor; the boy in my life chose to have me publicly humiliated during our shared math class because one of my biggest bullies influenced him. He sat with head hung and red ears in class while the other boy said extremely cruel things to me that supposedly were how my now ex-boyfriend felt about me. Every single person in that class laughed at me, and I had to sit there and pretend as if nothing had ever happened. Getting teachers involved with that sort of occurrence was useless; my German teacher had watched as several of the boys in class shot rubber bands at me, causing welts all over my arms. My dad tried to raise the issue with the principal, but the boys involved never received any consequences for what they had done to me.
Like Noelle, I also had a small group of supportive friends who treated me like a normal person. I am grateful to them for softening my rough high school experience. I am also indebted to the transfer student who later became my first real boyfriend, and thought I was beautiful. He wasn’t afraid to hold my hand, and like Noelle’s Julian, he saw what the other boys said to me and was supportive of me 100%. I made many girls jealous that year since he was arguably one of the best looking boys in the entire school (we had approximately 100 students, if even that). He dumped me 2 weeks later (he had way more experience with dating than I did, and it made things awkward between us), but the lesson I learned from him was that I was special, and there were decent boys out there willing to look past the cruelty of others and not get caught up in high school games.
Throughout my reading of Keep Holding On, I kept highlighting passages that really stood out to me: heartbreaking ones, profound ones, and hopeful ones. Sometimes I highlighted nearly the entire page. This is one of the most important books that I have read this year and probably in my entire life; if you or any friend you might have is going to school afraid of their peers, you need to read this book. High school can be an unforgiving world. But life does get better, and it can start with just a few ripples. Noelle finds sanctuary when she joins the lit mag as co-editor. She experiences what it feels like to share common interests with other students like Simon, who is like her guardian angel in so many ways. I adored Simon for all the little things he did to make Noelle’s life better. I loved Sherae for being the best friend and support system that Noelle needed, and for convincing her that she mattered and that she should not let Julian slip through her fingers. We all need a best friend like Sherae!
All of you, step back for a second and look at yourself in the mirror. Who are you? Are you the person who hears those hurtful words, or are you the one who is dishing them out? If it’s the latter, I want you to hear me. Once those words leave your mouth, they can never be taken back. Whoever you have addressed them to will not hear them just that one time; those words will be re-played for many years to come. That will be your legacy, how you will be remembered for a lifetime. Even if you go on to do great, charitable things, to at least one person who will be nothing more than a wound inflicter. No one should want to be remembered that way. Take care with your words and actions; they cut deep wounds.
For more information about Susane and her books, click here to visit her website.