When I teach Chaucer, I connect my students to the Canterbury Tales by broaching a concept they all know well: social divisions, cultural types, the modern-day caste system. Before the knight even begins his tale, we have a good idea what’s coming because we know the basic characteristics of a knight: honor, courtesy, bravery—the whole chivalric-code thing. Before the miller even begins his tale—well, after I tell my students what a miller is—we brace ourselves for the rude and crude character type after which the miller is modeled.
We all have ready-made social classifications into which we place the people we meet: bratty kid, teenage rebel, college-age partyer, thirty-something business professional, single mom, helicopter parent, grumpy old man, etc. These classifications are often unfair because they are stereotypes—presumptions foisted upon people usually because of the way they look. Though often unfair, we would be lying if we said we didn’t make use of them.
Part of the reason for this is that for the mind to understand anything it requires categories to begin the process of ordering sense data. I would never even make it out the front door if I had to start from scratch every time an object appeared to my senses: “That is an object. It emits a pleasant smell that makes my mouth water. Since it is the morning it must be a breakfast item. It is square and brown…” I can save a lot of time by simply filing the object into the category of toast. And although that may be unfair to this particular piece of toast because it is unlike other pieces of toast within the category of toast—maybe it comes from a fancy bakery, maybe it’s gluten free—I can at least start there and then make distinctions.
Anyway, my students can relate to this approach to the Canterbury Tales because they have recently been in high school and understand the social-classification system. I am amazed at how little that system has changed over the years. Jocks will always have a place in every American high school. As will nerds. The “princess,” as Claire is called in The Breakfast Club, might go by other names these days, but she’s still around. The “basket case” overlaps with the Goth. And alas, the “criminal” still walks the halls of public high schools.
In junior high, I was amazed one August when an erstwhile Goth showed up on the first day of school as a popular kid. He changed categories! I didn’t know that was possible. The year before his hair was dyed black, his clothes were dark, and his musical interests centered on the Violent Femmes. In August, when he returned to school, his gelled hair was blond, his Polo shirt was green, and his radio was dialed to top 40. My fellow students and I were too stunned to make fun of him. The kid forced me to throw out the social playbook; anything seemed possible now.
Golden Notes makes use of the social-classification system. But like Chaucer, I like to experiment with the blueprints. My character Brodie is a good example of someone who fits nicely into one category but can step into others when necessary. Others complicate categories. Zoe may be a Gothic loner, but she also possesses an enormous capacity to be a friend.
Social classification systems are part of our mental furniture. But they are forever pulled, pushed, and stretched thanks to interesting people who defy expectations, people who may identity themselves with a category but never let themselves get too comfortable there.