Bad Boy: A Memoir by Walter Dean Myers
Posted February 16, 2013on:
It’s what you do.
These words were spoken to Walter Dean Myers by a high school teacher, when encouraging him to always write. According to Myers, years later while working on a construction job in New York, he remembered her words. He began writing at night and eventually began writing about the most difficult period of his own life, the teen years.
Since that time, Myers has written over fifty books for young people and won the Coretta Scott King Award for African-American authors five times. Myers is also a three-time finalist for the National Book Award. In January 2012, Myers replaced Katherine Paterson as the Library of Congress’s National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a two-year position created to raise national awareness of the importance of lifelong literacy and education.
For the next two weeks, something different will happen at Allison’s Book Bag. I’ll be focusing on Walter Dean Myers. Below is information about Myers, taken from his memoir entitled Bad Boy. My first reviews will be of his shorter works. The rest of my reviews will be of his longer works. Save the dates: February 4-16!
Each of us is born with a history already in place.
The first chapter covers information that Walter Dean Myers obtained through family stories, census records, old photographs, and other records. For example, his great-uncle, Lucas D. Dennis, was a slave on a plantation in Virginia. As for the rest of his family history, it involves his father who married two times. At some point, his father and Myers’ new mom moved to Harlem with the family.
The second chapter is about Harlem, the first place which Myers remembers, and about his mom. She sometimes worked outside the home cleaning apartments. After Myers had some harrowing childhood escapades, his mom decided to stay at home to keep closer watch on him. One incident involved the fact his mom had arranged with the grocer to give Myers food if he was hungry, but Myers used the chance to buy square penny chocolates. Another involved colored icy pops, which Myers would buy with pennies he earned by dancing for neighbors. One day he developed a bad stomach ache and had to be rushed to the hospital. Myers writes with incredible fondness for his mom, with whom he had long conversations, made up stories, and learned to read.
Did you know Myers grew up with a speech disorder? The third chapter focuses on his earliest school memories. In second grade, peers started tease him about the way he talked. His reaction? A punch to the face of his tormentor. Naturally, this resulted in trips to the principal’s office. Back in those days, such a trip might result in having to write lines. There were other negative consequences too. Teachers would slap him, send him to the closet, or even fail him. Last, being in trouble at school always resulted in a punishment at home.
You are a bad boy, a very bad boy.
These words were spoken to Walter Dean Myers by an elementary school teacher named Mrs. Conway. Ironically, Mrs. Conway was also the same teacher who inspired a love of reading for Myers. After ripping up his comic book, she gave him a collection of Norwegian fairy tales. Because of this book, Myers realized he loved books and to read. He also decided that he liked Mrs. Conway. Besides introducing him to a different kind of reading experience, Mrs. Conway was the first teacher to praise and read Myers’ poems at school.
In the next chapter, Myers recounts experiences from fourth grade. For example, he met the son of a baker. His teacher assigned Myers and the baker’s son the duty of fetching milk and cookie orders from the school. Life remained fairly pleasant until shortly after the Easter vacation, when one fight spoiled the entire year. For the first time, Myers heard the threat of reform school.
Another year passed. In the fifth chapter, labeled Bad Boy, Myers shares historical events of the time. The summer of 1947 was one of eager anticipation, because two black players had finally been accepted into the major league baseball, the president was negotiating with black leaders to integrate the armed forces, and a local newspaper had suggested that United States was going to start treating blacks as equals. Myers also talks about discipline and how at the time spankings were not considered abuse, but intended to define what behavior was unacceptable. And then there was school. This was the year when Myers met Mrs. Conway as a teacher and the year the school magazine published one of his poems.
In the sixth chapter, Myers talks about how his friends fell into two camps: those who played ball and those who did not. Myers loved to play ball, which helped him fit in with his peers. He also loved to read, which was a less popular passion. For that reason, he kept his reading pursuits to himself–along with his interest in dance and love of writing poems. When the summer ended, Myers met his first male teacher. As with every other teacher, Mr. Lasher told Myers: “I won’t tolerate fighting in my class for any reason.” Unlike other teachers, Mr. Lasher convinced Myers that his reading ability and good test scores made him special. The year wasn’t over yet. Myers narrates two other escapades, which I’ll leave for you to read about for yourself.
I am not the center of the universe.
Myers learned this truth the year he turned twelve. One evening he went to bed dreaming about the party that would be held in his honor and the gifts that he would receive. In the middle of the night, he woke to his mom telling him, “Your Uncle Lee was killed last night.” His father cried openly, slipped into depression, and spent a year being distant. When home, his father would often immerse himself in religious radio shows. Life became difficult for the entire Myers family.
Other changes also happened. For example, a teacher recommended Myers’ placement in a newly formed rapid advancement class. In this class, all the kids were smart, but for the first time Myers started feeling a sense of being alone. First, in American history, the class was taught about slavery, which made Myers and other black kids uncomfortable. Second, although he liked to read, Myers didn’t at the time associate books with writers. None of the writers he studied in school had any relation to anything that Myers knew as real. Last, he read his first book that alluded to sex. As happens with many teens, Myers began to spend more time in his room, feeling separate from even his family.
In chapter eight, called A Writer Observes, Myers shared how at age thirteen he began to see the world differently. Myers wanted to see the world as a writer. The problem was with his models. Myers aspired to write like the poets Bryon and Shelley. He began his formal observations at 125th Street and the Hudson River. However, Myers was seeing only what he had seen all his life. He also didn’t know how to see his world with new eyes. So Myers tried instead to write about the people of his neighborhood. In doing so, he became aware of how being black meant being different from whites. Feeling frustrated that he couldn’t write like Shakespeare, Myers stopped trying to write. This decision however didn’t lessen the confrontations that he would face due to being black.
By this time there were two very distinct voices going on in my head and I moved easily between them. One had to do with sports, street life, and establishing myself as a male…. The other voice, the one I hid from my street friends and teammates, was increasingly dealing with the vocabulary of literature.”
In chapter nine, Myers mentions some humorous escapades such as one about chewing tobacco, another about a spitball fight in typing class, and one about how the gifted students turned a cultural play into a comic romp. For the rest of the chapter, Myers write about his hidden voice. Through Elizabeth Barrett Browning, he found a poet to whom he could relate because she wrote of love. The narrative poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner also gave Myers new literary insights. He realized that poems could tell stories and have meaning.
Myers returns to coverage of family problems in chapter ten. In the summer of 1951, financial burdens weighed on the Myers. One came in the form of his grandfather, who had lost his sight and needed assistance. The grandfather moved in with the Myers family, which naturally caused disruptions. First, the grandfather took Myers’ room as his own. Second, because the family didn’t have indoor plumping, the grandfather used a slop bucket in his bedroom. Third, his parents often fought from the stress. Looking back, Myers says, “I can see we were all trapped in our own unhappy circumstances.”
I didn’t know where I was going or even where I should have been going.
Myers felt lost. His classmates were talking about college and jobs, but it was the early fifties and so options for black students were limited both in higher education and in employment. A cousin of Myers offered him a part-time position at the garment center. Myers tried for a better job through the guidance counselor’s office, but they also sent him to the garment center. As far as colleges, Myers didn’t know what he wanted to do. Many jobs were out of the question due to his speech impediment. Although he excelled in creative writing, Myers didn’t know anyone at the time who earned his livelihood from it. Moreover, there was the issue of finances. He couldn’t afford money to try out for track and so how was he going to pay for college?
In chapter eleven, Myers turns to summer activities. He played a little ball. There was talk of a scholarship. He broke up a fight and became drawn to them because of aggression empowered him, a topic which he covers in various of his novels. Walking one day along Seventh Avenue, he heard Langston Hughes talk but failed at the time to see him as a fellow writer. Instead he was drawn to the poet Dylan Thomas, who could write poems that moved the “hearts of wicked me and made beautiful women swoon”.
Myers had managed to pass his previous year, but he couldn’t maintain his resolution to attend his classes. In chapter twelve, he explains how school became a disaster. If not for English, he might have become a dropout. His creative writing teacher required students to read books of her choice, in exchange for her reading their writings. She assigned Myers to read four books, all of which influenced his growth as a writer. Yet nothing could stop Myers’ confusion and growing depression. Ultimately, his mom received a call from the school requesting her to meet with them due to his numerous absences.
Do you like being black?
These words were spoken to Walter Dean Myers by a doctor assigned to him. In chapter fourteen, Myers shares that although he had begun writing poems about his feelings of isolation, loneliness, and death, he felt unable to confide with either of his parents about his inner despair. Nor did he confide to the doctor. During one of his visits with Dr. Holiday, she asked him the above question. His reflection on that question comprises all of chapter fifteen.
Turning next to chapter sixteen, Myers covers current events. For example, black newspapers were declaring that the Negro Leagues were dead. Vietnam was also making the news, as this was 1954. The chapter ends with this line:
It was so far from what I wanted from my life.
There are three chapters which I have not covered. If you wish to know how Myers became esteemed author he is today, you’ll find some answers in his memoir and others in extras to some of his books, through online interviews, and at his website.
I left out some details from each chapter, choosing to focus on highlights. What I have shared, however, should provide plenty of biographical info for any interested in Walter Dean Myers. My chapter summaries will also hopefully inspire you to seek out Myers’ memoir.
- Review of Amiri and Odette
- Review of Lockdown
- Review of Monster
- Review of 145th Street
- Review of Scorpions
- Review of Street Love
- Author Walter Dean Myers Visits Incarcerated Youth Program
- Message from Myers: Reading is NOT OPTIONAL
- Walter Dean Myers: Bad Boy Makes Good