Does race play a factor in whether or not one succeeds in life? Bad Boy by Walter Dean Myers explores this topic in an unforgettable memoir about identity, racism, and the neighborhood of Harlem. His transition from childhood to becoming a man is a rollercoaster ride of maturing and finding his place in a racist society and a system built to go against him. This is the story of what came to be one of the most influential writers of young adult literature.
As a boy, Walter Dean Myers utilized violence to solve his problems, put his faith in God and the Dodgers, and had an unshakeable set of values taught to him by school that, together, would undoubtedly amount to a successful life. His childhood was overall focused on God and reading, he thought if he stayed on the straight and narrow path of following the values that made the most sense, he would be on his way to achieving “the state of being good” (Myers, 66). This was sure to be a foolproof plan for smooth sailing, Walter thought school was providing him a guideline to live his life, never once did he anticipate that prejudice would interfere. He was being good until his quick temper consistently landed him in the principal’s office, all due to his peers making fun of his speech impediment. However, he was smart and he knew it; reading every chance he got and steadily advanced in writing, stealing comic books to read every now and then. From the writer’s perspective, he often observed his neighborhood, and basked in the rich culture and vivid colors of it all.
No matter how much trouble he got in along the way, teachers always encouraged him to keep writing. One teacher in particular, Mr. Lasher, was able to overlook his troublesome behavior and placed him in a rapid advancement class. This put things in a new perspective for Walter, who began to see himself as two separate identities: the scholar who had a passion for books and writing, and the tough guy who had gained a reputation in the streets. Overall, he began to have encounters with racism that were not noticeable as a child, witnessing differences in races, and race came into the forefront of his mind. The harsh reality was that due to growing up poor and black, his opportunities were limited; this went against the values he was taught. College was suddenly out of the question because they had no money. On the other hand, black people went to their jobs as laborers on the entrance to the A train, they were the ones who worked for the white people. Walter resolved that he did not want to be one of those people, but instead wanted a job where his smarts were appreciated. The garment center was the place to go if anyone wanted a job, and he was referred to be one of the packers inside the factory, a better job than being a mover, where all the black men went to put in manual labor. This went on well until his job was given to a white man, and they suggested for him to join the movers.
Meanwhile, Myers often hid the aspect of his personality that loved reading as it isolated him from his friends, and finding another boy that shared his interests was very rare. This started his preconceived idea that he did not generally fit the concept of masculinity, and that the role of being a man was somewhat burdensome at times, so he hid his enjoyment of books. Everything was starting to fall apart. In the meantime, his mother often played the lottery in hopes of striking it rich, one of the only hopes they clung onto. Walter most desired a typewriter, so he began saving up money for it until his mother wasted all his money on the lottery. This crushed Walter, and the typewriter became a symbol for everything that was taken from him. His grades began to drop. Slacking and staying out of school in isolation had become the norm. He also became aware of the lack of authors that looked like him, and began to think of the world as a system that went against his very being. This went on until the city considered him mentally disturbed, in which they would closely observe him and his school absences. He had thoughts of suicide as his shortcomings were repeated back to him by his therapist. Feeling trapped and exasperated, he thought to himself, “Can’t you see that I am more disappointed with my life than you could ever be? Can’t you see that this school is only interested in what it sees as its successes and I know I’m not one of them?” (Myers, 143). Deep down, what hurt the most was feeling like his potential was all for naught and society did not give him a chance to prove himself, as far as he was concerned, he was a failure through and through, and that the school did not value him if he was not successful.
For the most part, feeling hopeless was a given and he eventually joined the army to escape his failed teenage years and where no one could tell him what chances he did not have in life. Subsequently, when he was released from the army, he had realized that writing was his true mission in life and he remembered his teachers’ advice to continually pursue it. He identified himself as an intellectual since being labeled as simply black felt like it discredited his achievements. He finally felt like he belonged through his writing and was determined to leave a legacy with his words. His writing gave him respect and the skills he has “are respected for themselves. All in all, it has been a great journey and not at all shabby for a bad boy,” (Myers, 206). In the end, his family was infinitely proud of him despite his troubled childhood and he became a world renowned author who touched the lives of many through his experiences of turmoil. Even though he swore he was set out for failure in the beginning of his life, his passion was stronger and had another plan for him.
No matter how much someone fails, there is always a chance to find their own version of success, even if it feels like the whole world is against them. This is but one of the messages of Myers’ autobiography, with its depth of social and cultural meaning. Although there is still a ways to go in terms of equal opportunities in America, it is important to never lose hope and to disregard whatever template society wants an individual to fit into as a means of establishing one’s identity.