“Teenage Wasteland” by Anne Tyler tells the story of a disturbed teenager, Donny, from the perspective of his mother, Daisy Coble. After Donny’s parents, Matt and Daisy Coble, learn that he is struggling at school, they take various steps to help him improve, including appointing a tutor, Cal. However, all their well intentioned efforts prove useless, as Donny gets expelled from the school and finally runs away from home. This extreme step by Donny forces Daisy to think about what mistake they made as parents. In my opinion, there were several factors which led to Donny running away from home. In this essay, I am going to argue that the Cobles’ parenting style, the strict discipline of Donny’s private school and Cal’s negative influence were together responsible for Donny’s disillusionment which eventually led to his running away.
Since the story is told only from Daisy’s perspective, it is not possible to know all the factors influencing Donny. However, even Daisy’s perspective gives some important clues on what is going on in Donny’s life. Although Daisy tries her best to be a good parent, she obviously fails to connect with her son. It is difficult to pinpoint how and when she starts to alienate herself from Donny, although it is possible that the problem began years ago when Donny’s sister was born and he “acted lost and bewildered” (para 14).
It is obvious that the Cobles care for their children considering that they are studying in a private school and the parents take all the usual steps to ensure that the children do not get into trouble. But perhaps they are too “controlling”, failing to recognize Donny’s transition from childhood to teenage. To a fifteen year old, rules such as not watching TV on school night and talking on phone only after finishing homework would have been too restrictive. It could also have been the reason behind Donny hiding things from his parents. He lies to get around such rules and tells his parents that he does not “have any homework or he did it all in study hall” (para 3).
On the other hand, while they seem concerned for Donny, they are unaware of his falling grades and the poor quality of his assignments, suggesting that the Cobles use only punitive and controlling ways to keep check on their children. Donny definitely feels that his parents are “controlling” and he says as much to Daisy on several occasions. Although it is difficult for any parent to connect with a fifteen year old, they could have been better parents by trying to reach out to him as a friend rather than restricting their parenting to a list of dos and don’ts. Ironically, the only person who is able to connect with Donny is Cal, whose influence proves to be Donny’s nemesis.
Then there is also the issue of “trust” and “self esteem”. These issues are raised several times in the story, first by the psychologist and later by Cal and Donny, giving an important pointer on what the problem could be. Teenage is a difficult time when most children are trying to find their separate identities. However, Cobles’ failure to recognize this and insistence on continuing to treat him as a kid leads to constant struggle, with Donny feeling that his parents do not trust him. The conversation between Cal and Daisy gives some important clues about Donny’s problem. As Cal points out, Donny is a “serious, sensitive kid” who would like to “take on some grown up challenges”. However, the Cobles seem to be “giving him the message that he can’t be trusted” (para 38). As Cal points out, this could be undermining his confidence. It is possible that in their zeal to be good parents, the Cobles went overboard and put too many restrictions on their children. Also, Donny’s falling grades could have been a cry for help from a confused kid who wants to be taken seriously.
Donny’s poor work ethics also reflect poorly on the Cobles. The sloppy way in which he does his homework was not learned overnight and had Daisy paid attention from the beginning, she could have instilled better work ethics in Donny. By the time Daisy learns about Donny’s work ethics, he is already in his teens and trying to teach him at that stage results in stiff opposition.
The role of school in Donny’s downfall is not clear from the story. However, excessive discipline can have counter affects and it is possible that the private school was too focused on strict controls rather than allowing children to explore for themselves. A pointer that this could be a reason for Donny’s negative attitude is that after Donny gets expelled, Cal tells Daisy “That’s a very punitive school you’ve got him in” (para 85).
Although Donny was already lagging when he was introduced to Cal, his interactions with the tutor could have been the final nail in the coffin, which eventually causes him to become so disillusioned that he runs away. Cal is like a teenager himself and encourages children to play games and listen to music rather than do their homework. His approach in dealing with kids seems to be to allow them to do whatever they want to do, without requiring them to take any responsibility for their actions. And he obviously does not care for the kids’ performance at school since Donny’s association with him results in Donny failing in History. This part of the story is significant since the history teacher tries to warn Daisy that things are not improving. But Cal convinces her that everything is normal, giving Daisy false hope. Cal effectively prevents the Cobles from learning anything about what is going on in their son’s life.
Also Cal is not very successful with most of his children since “one of Cal’s students had recently been knifed in a tavern. One had been shipped off to boarding school in midterm; two had been withdrawn by their parents” and then there was “someone who’d been studying with Cal for five years” (para 61). This casual atmosphere at Cal’s place should have warned the Coble’s that everything is not normal. However, they continue to ignore the various indications they get about Cal’s inaptness as a tutor, until it is too late.
Even when Donny is expelled from school, Cal supports Donny and puts the blame on the school instead of asking Donny to take the responsibility. If anything, Cal made Donny even more irresponsible. His interactions with “his kids” (para 15) are far from ideal. According to Carney (2007), people working with teens should be careful about becoming too “friendly” and should not share their personal life with the children. Cal obviously does not follow this rule since he discusses his failed marriage with his “really controlling” (para 59) wife with the children. He is not “like a grownup at all” (para 57) and is a very bad role model to the kids. The club like atmosphere at his home, defending Donny even when he is obviously wrong and not taking any responsibility for the kids’ behavior, all make him seems like “a bit of an evil pied piper” (Gomoll et al, 1991).
Some people may put the entire blame of Donny’s downfall on Cal. However, Cal only worsens a problem which already exists. Donny is already a troubled kid and the parents have to take major blame for this. Had Cal been a better tutor he could have tried to instill a sense of responsibility and prevented the situation from deteriorating further. Unfortunately, he only manages to further alienate the kid from his parents. As a result, when the tutoring is stopped, Donny had nobody to turn to, no friends and no family and so eventually he decides to run away.
It is a complex mix of several factors and no one person can be blamed entirely for Donny’s downfall. Had the Cobles been more understanding, there would have been no need for a tutor. And had Cal been able to make Donny more responsible instead of supporting him even when he is wrong, he could have helped prevent the catastrophe. The strict discipline at school also does not help. Had Donny found a good, positive support system from even one person, the tragedy in the story could have been averted.
Gomoll, Rob et al. “The Round Table: Encouraging Promising Students to Consider the Teaching Profession.” The English Journal 80.1 (1991): 75-77. JSTOR. Web.
Carney, Susan. “Building Trust with Teens.” Suite101.com. 2007. Web.
Tyler, Anne. “Teenage Wasteland.” (1984).