As I read through Bad Boy: A Memoir, I found that the story of young Walter elicited mixed emotions in me as a reader. Walter describes himself as a young boy who, despite some obvious set backs including difficulties with his speech, living in poverty, and struggling to understand the dynamics of racism and segregation in American society at the time, was also lucky enough to have parents who loved him, be placed in the Special Progress class in school, and was able to turn to his reading, writing, and athletic talents into outlets for his troubles. Since Walter as a narrator and the reader are able to reflect on his past and see that he had the potential to go to college and use his intelligence to move outside of the jobs in the garments district he talks about not wanting to take, it is extremely difficult to read about him wasting his opportunities, as he mentions his teachers tell him he is doing, with his continued misbehavior and violence. As an adult reader, I wondered what Dean Myers’ intended message to his young audience was throughout the disheartening novel; most significantly what was he indicating in the end?
My first reaction was to criticize Dean Myers’ honesty. In a way, all of straying from the path adults encourage adolescents to follow seemed disconcerting. A man who became a successful author admitting he had not done all the things children and adolescents are expected to do would imply that others also don’t need to do what they are told. Dean Myers pointed out several times that he was picking up on certain values about fairness and honesty in school and church and the more he came to understand that those things didn’t exist all the time in the real world, his ideas of what his future would be fell apart. For the narrator of this memoir not to be truthful about what his own experiences as a youth had been would be a cop-out for his own readers. In writing his personal story, Dean Myers, doesn’t encourage misbehavior, he builds a tale for today’s youth about how growing up can be both a struggle and a learning process.
From Walter’s perspective of Harlem and the people surrounding him, it is difficult to understand why he continuously does everything he can to sacrifice his education and stay where he is unhappy. Dean Myers describes his father not being able to read as something that divided them for life. He discusses the jobs of his sisters, brothers-in -law, and even the students in his high school who work in the garment district as being too menial-even though he is uncertain of what he wants, he knows he is destined for something different. As the text progresses, the reader comes to understand that Walter doesn’t fit in in Harlem, but as he ages he also learns the white world will not accept him. It is when he senses a hopeless future that he strays from the path his parents and teachers might have wanted for him. Walter doesn’t care about making money and creative writing is a possibility; when he reads Langston Hughes, he realizes the man writes for a different purpose and perhaps he should try something similar. But, these dreams won’t materialize after he stops attending school.
Although on the surface it may appear as though Dean Myers is sending a message to his readers that it is okay to do what you want and things will work out, if readers look deeper, they will also find more intricate meaning in the novel. Walter says repeatedly that he regrets not listening to the adults in his life when they told him he was wasting his opportunities; dropping out of high school at the age of seventeen and joining the army to go to Vietnam is not a choice one would likely make again if they could go back. He also notes that he was an adolescent and learning about life; people make mistakes. Still, not everything in the memoir is bad. Many of Walter’s memories of Harlem, the people and scenes from his childhood are happy. There must be some hope coming from teachers and parents in order for gifted people like Walter to keep on writing.
Final Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
Award Winning Young Adult Fiction from Walter Dean Myers:
Fallen Angels (1988)