My students are blogging about their books this week, so I thought I’d use this entry to follow suit. My goal is to read at least 20 minutes a night. I’ve been trying to step outside my usual reads to get into more nonfiction; however, the book I recently finished represents a return to my comfort zone of young adult fiction. And while the genre was familiar, it was immediately clear that this book would not be like the others.
Set in 1950s Virginia, Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley shares the experiences of two very different high school girls during the battle for civil rights. Sarah’s family and community waged a court battle to get equal educational opportunities for black students, and the book begins as they attempt to enter the front doors of Jefferson High, the (previously) all-white school. Linda’s family and community are vehemently opposed to the decision and make their dissent clear as they stop at very little to create an unwelcome environment for the ten new students. Eventually, Sarah and Linda are thrown together to work on a class project, and everything they thought was true is questioned.
“Other people will try to decide things for you,” [Sarah] said. “They’ll try to tell you who you are. Remember, no matter what they say, you’re the only one who really decides.”
Clearly one of the major, overarching themes of the book, this advice is passed on by Sarah to her younger sister, Ruth, near the end of the story. As Sarah endures her journey through her senior year of high school, her adversaries attempt to define who she is by placing her in remedial classes instead of the upper level courses she was in at her old school and by abusing her both physically and verbally. Sarah does not allow these tactics to designate who she is; instead, she rises above the fray and trudges through each day, determined to graduate despite the unjust conditions.
While circumstances are not quite as dire for Linda, she, too, eventually decides to discover her own path. Her thoughts on the whole situation were instilled by her father and classmates. As she gets to know Sarah, her compassion takes over, and those ideas begin to die off, no matter how frequently and forcefully others try to replant them. In the end, Linda successfully uproots herself from the toxic environment.
This message is so important still today. When we feel like others are trying to tell us how to think and feel, we must search our own minds and hearts to find our own truth. And if the truth we discover doesn’t align with what we’ve been told, we must look for the courage to allow ourselves to separate from those who may want to hold us back.