Teenage Wasteland

by Anne Tyler

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When Daisy Coble receives a telephone call from the principal of her son Donny’s private school, the boy’s problems do not seem serious. He is described as “noisy, lazy, disruptive, always fooling around with his friends.” At a conference with the school’s principal, Daisy is ashamed to be regarded as a delinquent, unseeing, or uncaring parent. She describes the restrictions that she and her husband have placed on Donny: no television on school nights, limited telephone calls, and so on. Following the conference, Daisy conscientiously follows the principal’s suggestion that she personally supervise Donny’s homework and is discouraged by the weaknesses she finds in Donny’s work.

In December, the school reports that Donny shows slight progress, as well as new problems: cutting class, smoking in the furnace room, leaving the school grounds, and returning with beer on his breath. Psychological testing is undertaken and a tutor recommended. “Cal” Beadle, the tutor—whom Donny resists at first—quickly establishes himself as being on the boy’s side: against the school, which he calls punitive, and the parents, whom Donny calls controlling and competitive—words that he has obviously picked up from Cal.

Donny apparently enjoys his sessions with Cal, who encourages his students to hang around by listening to records and shooting baskets at the backboard on his garage. Donny’s grades do not improve, but the school notes that his attitude is more cooperative. This proves to be an illusion, however, as in April Donny is expelled after beer and cigarettes are found in his locker.

Instead of coming home after his expulsion, Donny goes to his tutor’s house, where Daisy finds him looking upset and angry. When Donny refuses to accept any blame for the incident, Daisy recalls the bold-faced, wide-eyed look on his face when, as a small boy, he denied little mischiefs, despite all the evidence pointing to his guilt.

Donny proposes that he apply to another school, an idea about which Cal is enthusiastic, saying that he works with many students at the other school. Cal adds that this other school knows “where a kid is coming from.” Daisy does not like the sound of the school and is troubled by Cal’s smile, which strikes her as “feverish and avid—a smile of hunger.”

Shortly after this conference, Donny’s parents enroll him in a public school and terminate his tutoring sessions. Although both decisions are against Donny’s wishes, he plods off to his new school each morning, without friends, looking worn out and beaten.

In June, Donny disappears. The police try to find him, but their remarks about the hundreds of young people who run away every year are not reassuring. Three months pass without word from Donny. Both his parents have aged, and his younger sister tries to stay away from home as much as she can. Daisy lies awake at night going over Donny’s life, trying to understand their mistakes and wondering whom to blame.

The story ends as Daisy, falling asleep, glimpses a basketball sinking through the hoop, onto a yard littered with leaves and striped “with bands of sunlight as white as bones, bleached and parched and cleanly picked.”

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