On learning to reject conformity from a special book from my childhood
British novelist C.S. Lewis once said “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” In elementary school, I would often read Stargirl, a book written by Jerry Spinelli. It was a children’s story, but not the kind Lewis describes — it’s one I’ve held close to my heart and enjoy to this day.
Who is Stargirl?
She’s not an intergalactic superhero, nor is she the girlfriend of The Weekend’s “Starboy”. She’s a fictional high school student who lives in the fictional small town of Mica, Arizona. She’s a cheerleader, but she’s not one of the popular girls because she’s not that pretty and she cheers for the opposing school’s football team when they score too. At lunch, she walks around the school cafeteria and sings to students she doesn’t know on their birthday, strumming away shamelessly on her ukulele as she sings. She attends the funerals of people she never met. Depending on her mood, she shows up to school in a kimono on one day, in buckskin the day after, and in pioneer clothing the next. Unbeknownst to her, she’s an utter embarrassment.
Yes, Stargirl is an embarrassment. Stargirl is an outcast. Stargirl is weird.
But above all else, Stargirl is more liberated and free than the rest of us might ever be.
In my life, I’ve come across a handful of people I’d consider to be a “Stargirl”. The gender nonconforming club-goer I danced the night away with in Brooklyn. They were Stargirl. My high school classmate who confidently flaunts her body on social media, knowing full well that society deems her body undesirable. She is Stargirl, too. My elementary school classmate who ran around alone at recess pretending to be a dinosaur while the rest of us stuck to the monkey bars and hopscotch. He was, and hopefully still is, Stargirl.
“She laughed when there was no joke. She danced when there was no music. She had no friends yet she was the friendliest person in school. In her answers in class, she often spoke of seahorses and stars, but she did not know what a football was….
She was elusive. She was today. She was tomorrow. She was the faintest scent of a cactus flower, the flitting shadow of an elf owl. We did not know what to make of her. In our minds we tried to pin her to a corkboard like a butterfly, but the pin merely went through and away she flew.” — Jerry Spinelli, Stargirl
Stargirl’s real name is Susan. She makes the choice to go by Stargirl. I think there are many people — maybe even you — who really are Stargirl but elect to go by Susan. It’s no fault of our own. In this world, it can often be blasphemous not to conform. We not only conform on big things, but on the little things, too. We lower the volume of our headphones in fear of others judging our music. We think twice before using a fancy word in paranoia of coming off as precocious (or perhaps use it to come off precocious). We join the heated throng of a dance once someone else busts the first move.
Being different isn’t only unacceptable, it’s terrifying. No one wants to be the cheerleader for the other team.
I don’t think Stargirl should only live within the confines of the pages of this book. There are remnants of her I can find in many people. Let’s bring this fictional person to life. Who will you choose to be — Susan or Stargirl?
As for me, I can’t promise that I’m going to go around wearing buckskin or make an appearance at a stranger’s funeral. But if there’s ever a time it’s someone’s birthday and there happens to be a ukulele lying around, I may just decide to pick it up, begin to strum, and sing.
This piece is a speech I wrote and delivered as a former member of Toastmasters, a non-profit that organizes clubs on public speaking. Other speeches I have published on Medium are “The Lifelong Learner”, “Why Do I Only Know 2 Prince Songs?” and “Be Infinite”.