I read Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson in 6th grade, and immediately claimed it to be My Favorite Book. I then devoured Catalyst, and proclaimed it My Second Favorite Book, although I had no frame of reference for the life of a high school senior, for the world of college applications and AP classes.
Revisiting the novel after finishing that chapter in my own life has proven to be an interesting experience. Although it isn’t word-for-word reflective of my time then, it has many universal truths for the moderately affluent college-bound high school senior. And while perhaps some portions are more applicable to my life now, I can look at them with a degree of separation and clarity.
The summary on the back of the book states: “Meet Kate Malone – straight A science and math geek, minister’s daughter, ace long-distance runner, new girlfriend (to Mitchell “Early Decision Harvard” Pangborn III), unwilling family caretaker, and emotional avoidance champion. Kate manages her life by organizing it, as logically as the periodic table. She can handle it all – or so she thinks. Then, things happen like a string of chemical reactions: first, the Malones’ neighbors get burned out of their own home and move in. Kate has to share her room with her nemesis, Teri Litch, and Teri’s little brother. The days are ticking by and she’s still waiting to hear from the only college where she’s applied: MIT. Kate feels that her life is spinning out of control – and then, something occurs that truly blows it all apart.”
What this summary doesn’t fully show is the tension between “Good Kate” and “Bad Kate”—and how we relate to her as readers.
Good Kate is the honor roll student, good sister, track star, and perfect caretaker. She remembers her deceased mother by working to attend her alma mater, MIT, and she stands up for those who need it. Bad Kate is the suck-up, the silent bystander, and the not-so-chaste high school senior who has unsafely only applied to one school and gets consumed by her own thoughts daily. She goes on long runs at night to clear her head and goes to school in the morning mentally and physically exhausted.
Kate says, “I am brilliant. I am special. I am going to MIT like my mom did. I am going to change the world,” and in that sentence sums up what many of us felt during the college application process. At a school like BC, which may have even been the safety school for some students, every individual has a stellar record of academics and extracurriculars, perfectly balanced to create the perfect application. Many of us likely suffer from “special snowflake syndrome” and think that because we were at the top of our high school class, we should be in the same position to excel here—and then are sourly disappointed and discouraged when we are only “average.” I had hoped to attend Brown University, and got deferred early decision just to be denied three months later. Kate herself is deferred then rejected by MIT because she lacks the oomph, the “something extra” beyond her school transcript. How many of us, even now, have heard those words when applying for jobs and internships? How many of us have gotten discouraged and let down by this arbitrary rejection of who we are.
Her something extra comes when Teri Litch reenters her life, and with her a new set of tragedies. Kate experiences selfless giving when assisting her father’s congregation in rebuilding the Litch house, housing Teri and her brother in her own bedroom until the work is finished. When events take a turn for the worse, and some horrible secrets are revealed, Kate is forced to bond further with Teri, and end her own self-centered, one track way of thinking to reflect on her mind and goals. Kate is reborn here, and truly finds herself (or at least tries to) as she takes the path less traveled.
Anderson works the stories of both Kate Malone and Teri Litch together to create a narrative that shows the differences between the sheltered suburban life and the life with great hardship, and how the two can coexist in the same place (sometimes even in the same person). Kate spends much of the story dwelling on MIT (perhaps as a coping mechanism), and it becomes clear that the idyllic vision is not accessible to everyone, not even Kate herself. There is a surface of normality in Catalyst that is dispelled only with continued reflection from Kate, which, I believe, is the same for every student here.
I enjoyed Catalyst far more now than I did at age twelve. Although some of the classic adolescent angst is absent form my reading now, and some of the daily occurrences (like the bell ringing to switch periods) of high school life are three years past, I relate with the feeling of needing to be organized, of struggling with rejection, and of spinning wildly out of control. But I also relate with the feelings of community and clarity, because like Kate, I’ve been there. Haven’t we all?