Sweet Valley High #69: Friend Against Friend
The Big Deal: Nothing much happening today. Too much racial tension.
Andy Jenkins is the token black boy at Sweet Valley High. He’s dating Tracy Gilbert, token black girl Patty Gilbert’s cousin or sister or something. He’s good friends with Neil Freemount, and he and Tracy often double date with Neil and Penny. Neil accompanies Andy to his locker one day at school, and is appalled to see someone has filled Andy’s locker with garbage and written, “Go back to Africa where you belong,” on the door. Damn. I wasn’t expecting that. Neil wants Andy to tell Mr. Cooper, but Andy thinks it’s best to just ignore it.
The next day, Neil’s family has a picnic with the Cashmans. Mr. Freemount and Mr. Cashman work together at Patman Canning and are good friends. You might remember Charlie Cashman from that time he and Crunch McAllister got into a fight with Steve Wakefield over Betsy Martin. Charlie isn’t at the picnic, for which Neil is grateful. Charlie’s father starts talking about his new supervisor at work, Willis. Mr. Cashman thinks Willis, who is black, only got the job because of affirmative action. Neil is horrified when his own father agrees with him, but hopes his dad is just going along with his friend. On Monday at school, Andy finds out he’s won a scholarship to study marine biology at some famous aquarium over the summer. I forgot to mention that Andy is a science whiz. After school, Andy and Tracy have a bite at the Dairi Burger with Neil and Penny. When they go to leave, the girls stay inside for a minute to talk to someone. Charlie Cashman and his gang of thugs harass Andy, and Neil tells them to shut up. When Tracy and Penny come out, Andy walks Tracy to her car. They find all of her tires have been slashed. So now Andy is all pissed off and when Neil tries to offer help and advice, Andy tells him he doesn’t need help, especially not from “any white person.”
Liz has the great idea to put a feature in the Oracle where students can write in and suggest things they would like to change about Sweet Valley. She’s expecting silly stuff like people asking for better food in the cafeteria, and she’s surprised when people immediately start talking about real things. Manuel thinks history should be taught differently because students don’t learn that Mexicans settled in California before white people. Dana thinks boys’ sports get more attention than girls’ sports and it’s not right. Penny wants to do away with Pi Beta Alpha. Liz can’t believe people are so dissatisfied with her beloved school. And when Penny and Neil tell her what’s been going on between Andy and Charlie, she gets all worked up and has to go home to her bedroom to think.
At dinner one night, Neil’s dad says some things about Mr. Cashman getting picked on at work by his black boss. Then Charlie shows up and asks Neil to go for a ride with him. Neil feels bad for Charlie, knowing that if Mr. Cashman is having a hard time at work, he’s probably taking it out on his wife and kid. So Neil goes with him and they cruise around for a while, honking the car horn in front of people’s houses and then driving away. When Neil gets home, he feels ashamed for hanging out with the guy who’s causing so much trouble for his best friend. Like, seriously, there’s no way I’d be hanging out with that guy unless it was to tell him off for being such a jackass. But for some reason, Neil doesn’t mention Andy at all.
At school the next day, Charlie comes up to Neil and asks him to go out with him and his friends. Neil says he’s waiting for Andy, and Charlie starts giving him shit about his “black buddy.” Neil sees Andy and goes to talk to him. Andy’s all, “So you’re friends with Charlie now?” Neil tells Andy he was sticking up for him and Andy gets all weird and says Neil can’t be friends with him if he’s friends with Charlie. Neil doesn’t want to be friends with Charlie, but he’s pissed off and says he’ll be friends with anyone he wants. Andy walks away.
Charlie trips Andy in the hallway at school, and Andy tackles him. Mr. Collins breaks up the fight and sends Charlie to the office. Then he drags Neil into his classroom and asks him if Charlie is picking on Andy because he’s black. Neil says he is, but dismisses Mr. Collins’ request to let him know if anything else happens. Neil and Penny go to the movies that night, but Neil is angry about Andy and they end up leaving early. When they get to the parking lot, they see Charlie and his thugs dragging Andy out of his car. Neil sends Penny inside to call the police. He runs over to the guys, but by the time he gets to Charlie and Andy, Andy is unconscious on the ground. Charlie starts taunting Neil, telling him to take a swing. Someone holds Andy up and Neil is so upset about the way Andy’s been treating him that he actually punches him in the stomach. Then he freaks out about what he’s done and drives off. He pulls over after a while and throws up.
Everyone assumes Charlie was behind the whole thing, but Andy refuses to identify his attackers. On Monday, it seems word of the attack has spread. Jessica’s sociology teacher decides to do a little experiment. She says everyone with blue or gray eyes is now a second class citizen and gives the rest of the class permission to treat the “Light-Eyes” as badly as they want. Even Mrs. Jacobi herself gets in on it and starts being all mean to the Light-Eyes. I’m not sure this would ever fly at any school I ever went to.
Neil is freaking out about someone finding out he had hit Andy, so he avoids everyone. When he gets home, his father surprises him with tickets to a football game. They have a lot of fun until halftime, when Mr. Freemount says he got a call from Mr. Cashman that morning. He says that even though it’s wrong to hit a guy when he’s down, Neil did the right thing because Andy had it coming. Neil is silent for the rest of the game. When they get back to Sweet Valley, Neil asks his dad to stop so he can get out. He runs over to Andy’s house, determined to tell him about what he did, but when he gets there Andy apologizes for being such a jerk. He wants to start over without any black-white crap between them. Neil shakes his hand and goes home, frustrated with himself for not telling Andy what really happened. After Andy goes back to school, Charlie tells Neil that Andy obviously didn’t learn his lesson, and that if Neil doesn’t help him get Andy, Charlie will tell the police Neil was the one who beat him up at the movie theater.
Neil finally tells Andy that he hit him. Andy walks away feeling betrayed and Penny says Neil isn’t who she thought he was. Instead of going to his next class, Neil goes outside and gets in his car. Liz taps on his window, looks at him with “sad and compassionate” eyes and tells him that even though what he did was wrong, it must have taken a lot of courage to tell Andy the truth. Neil is grateful that someone understands. (And you knew that someone would be Elizabeth Wakefield.) He drives around for a while and then ends up back at school. He sees Andy on the football field and Charlie and his gang walking toward him. He jumps out of his car and stands with Andy, telling Charlie he’ll have to beat them both up if he wants to take on Andy again. Charlie and his guys are nervous about this and they go away. Andy tells Neil this doesn’t make up for anything. Neil says he knows, but he’ll always stand with Andy against Charlie. Andy and Neil walk off in opposite directions.
That night, Penny is sitting around feeling sorry for herself. She suddenly comes to the conclusion that if she had been a better girlfriend to Neil and been there for him more, he wouldn’t have been confused and upset enough to hit Andy. What the hell? Then Neil calls and she decides to talk to him. She’s not sure if she can ever feel the same way about him, but she’s going to try. Which means in the next book there will be a bit about how they’d “gone through a rough patch, but now they were closer than ever!”
So, obviously, this book could be better, but one thing I do like is that for once it doesn’t end with a “happily ever after.” I’m sure Penny and Neil will get back together, but I’m not sure Andy will ever speak to Neil again and there was no ridiculous scene where Neil’s father suddenly sees the error of his ways and stops being a racist. So, points for that. But minus quite a few points for the “Don’t talk to ME about Mr. King!” line.
“Everyone is completely shocked,” Penny continued. “I just can’t believe something like that could happen here. I thought it only happened in big cities, like New York or L.A., but I guess I was naïve.”
Yes, I do believe that’s the not-so-subtle lesson we’re learning today.
For the rest of class, Jessica, Amy, and the other Light-Eyes were the victims of the worst kind of scorn, criticism, and ridicule. The teacher announced at one point that all the Light-Eyes would have to sit at the back of the room and would not be allowed to speak under any circumstances.
Yeah, I really just don’t think that’s a reasonable way to teach kids about racism. I mean, maybe some version of it, but letting the kids with dark eyes go crazy on the kids with light eyes is probably not something I’d approve of for my kid’s class if I were a parent.
The Cover: Ooh, homoerotic porn, right here in Sweet Valley.