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Breaking Tradition: BRUTAL YOUTH author Anthony Breznican on the fight against hazing

“Don’t get your ass kicked … Don’t get your ass kicked … Don’t get your ass kicked…”

Walking into my first day of high school, that was the one thought playing over and over again through my head, like a skipping record. I was 13 years old, about to turn 14 in a few weeks, and my best friend, Chad, whom I’d known since First Grade, was by my side. I’m pretty sure he was thinking the same thing.

As we go through life into adulthood, maybe we never stop thinking that.

“The things we surrender to when we’re young, we keep surrendering to the rest of our lives.”
Anthony Breznican, Brutal Youth

For sure, everyone enters high school full of fret and worry, along the hope and promise that things might get better, that a new start is possible.  In my case we’d been warned repeatedly about our little Roman Catholic school in Western Pennsylvania. It came in the form of one word: “Initiation.”

Chad’s older brother had graduated from there the year before, so we heard lots of stories about ritual humiliation inflicted upon the newbies by the upperclassmen. He made it sound pretty dire, not to mention inescapable. Every other scrap of intel we heard about the place from other students confirmed the same.

We were prepared to hurt. There didn’t seem to be any other choice.

For a lot of kids out there today, there still isn’t.

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All those old experiences came back to me years later when I sat down to write a novel about growing up. I named the book Brutal Youth after a line from an Elvis Costello song called Favourite Hour: “Now there’s a tragic waste of brutal youth / strip and polish this unvarnished truth.” That song came out the year I graduated high school, and it seemed to sum up all my heartbreak and struggle and anger from that age. I feel like it should have amounted to more.

But really, it did. It shaped who I became, what I cared about, how I treated other people. I tried to put all those memories into my book – things that happened to me, things that happened to others I knew – to say something about the origins of cruelty and how it perpetuates itself.

When Karen Jensen of Teen Librarian Toolbox got in touch to say she wanted to include Brutal Youth as part of a group read about hazing, along with Eric Devine’s Press Play and Joshua C. Cohen’s Leverage, I was thrilled because it’s a topic that means a lot to me. This isn’t just a high school issue, although that’s a great setting for these kinds of stories because hazing is right at the forefront of that experience. But all through life, there are people further up the ladder who will go out of their way to make your climb a lot harder.

The thing each of these books has in common is a question: What do you do with power once you get it? Do you step on someone else’s hand … or do you reach yours down to help pull them up?

It’s hard to believe in the science-fiction-sounding year of 2015 that there was ever a time when a high school’s administration actually sanctioned hazing, but … well, we had a hard time believing it back in 1990, too. It still happens today in many places – high schools, football teams, fraternities are the usual suspects. And always the hazing is reinforced by authority figures who look the other way, even if they think they aren’t.

*****

We heard all the old arguments at my school …

The administrators claimed Initiation would bond the freshmen in some kind of shared struggle. They also claimed that it would unite the upperclassmen and allow them to “let off steam” as they faced the pressures of college or work. It was also “Tradition.” If generations of students had gone through the same trials, why should it stop for us?

“It’s not enough to step in front of people’s bullets; you have to be bulletproof too. You have to be harder than anything anyone else can throw at you, and sometimes you risk losing yourself just trying to save yourself.”
Anthony Breznican, Brutal Youth

Another thing the grown-ups in our lives told us was: “Just go along with it.” If we resisted, if we fought back, or refused to participate, we would very likely get it worse. I guess this was my problem. I wasn’t brave or very strong, but I was a smartass. I was a nice, annoying target for anyone looking to vent some rage.

And I already had a deep dislike and mistrust for authority. Even at that young age, I’d seen far too many adults misuse their power, or shrug off and dismiss whatever pain kids might be going through. As a grown-up, overloaded with bills and responsibility, it’s easy to believe kids don’t have real problems.

That’s another time-honored “tradition” for you: Forgetting what it was like.

Whether it’s a distance of decades as a parent or teacher, or the mere difference of three years between a freshman and a senior, it’s easy to forget what it felt like being a pip-squeak walking into a new school, being told you are going to be tormented for no good reason except that frustrated older kids find torturing you to be relaxing. When people need to get off on that kind of power trip, there’s something wrong with the system that created them.

So when we weren’t singing songs or serving lunch, we were getting pulverized in the hall, tripped, pushed, punched, called names (mine was “Brezni-shit,” real clever) and humiliated and ostracized in myriad ways we try not to remember and hope no one else does, either.

*****

We value things more when we suffer for them. That’s undeniable.

The more grueling the class, the more satisfying we find that good grade on a test. The harder we work, the less we throw our money away on frivolous things. And the more we accomplish, the greater that feeling of pride when others recognize our talent or expertise.

Every single person who becomes really good at something pays a price for it. It’s natural to feel the same respect shouldn’t come easily to those who haven’t earned it yet.

So, I believe in paying dues. But I don’t believe in hazing.

Hazing uses the same argument to justify cruel and sadistic behavior, but it’s a lie the perpetrators tell themselves to rationalize letting their angry, ugly sides run amok on others who have done nothing to deserve it.

The idea behind hazing is: “If you can survive this, then you’ve earned your place.” But really, all it proves is that the people doing the hazing never deserved their status in the first place. And they expend all that energy not trying to make the world around them better, but trying to make things miserable for the people following them.

Now there’s a tragic waste …

Meet Our Guest Blogger:

Anthony Breznican was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania. He’s a senior writer with Entertainment Weekly, and lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two kids, and three cats. Brutal Youth is his first novel.

About Brutal Youth:

Three freshmen must join forces to survive at a troubled, working-class Catholic high school with a student body full of bullies and zealots, and a faculty that’s even worse in Anthony Breznican’s Brutal Youth

With a plunging reputation and enrollment rate, Saint Michael’s has become a crumbling dumping ground for expelled delinquents and a haven for the stridently religious when incoming freshman Peter Davidek signs up. On his first day, tensions are clearly on the rise as a picked-upon upperclassmen finally snaps, unleashing a violent attack on both the students who tormented him for so long, and the corrupt, petty faculty that let it happen. But within this desperate place, Peter befriends fellow freshmen Noah Stein, a volatile classmate whose face bears the scars of a hard-fighting past, and the beautiful but lonely Lorelei Paskal —so eager to become popular, she makes only enemies.

To even stand a chance at surviving their freshmen year, the trio must join forces as they navigate a bullying culture dominated by administrators like the once popular Ms. Bromine, their embittered guidance counselor, and Father Mercedes, the parish priest who plans to scapegoat the students as he makes off with church finances. A coming-of-age tale reversed, Brutal Youth follows these students as they discover that instead of growing older and wiser, going bad may be the only way to survive. (Publisher’s Description)

You can buy Brutal Youth at Amazon.com

Join us on Wednesday, January 28th, 2015 at 12 Noon Eastern for a Google Hangout led by Press Play author Eric Devine and featuring Brutal Youth author Anthony Breznican and Leverage author Joshua C. Cohen. The topic will be hazing. Learn more about the #SVYALit Project.

More on Hazing at TLT:

Take 5: Hazing

Initiation Secrets: Press Play and a look at hazing with author Eric Devine

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