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Teaching Students "Loneliness"

Authored By: 
James Vescovi, English teacher

At The Beekman School, English teachers are given the freedom to personalize the curriculum by reading literature that’s not on most high school syllabi. While we don’t neglect the classics, we do spend the first week sizing up a class to determine what texts students might find especially engaging.

One novella that has never failed me is Englishman Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1959). Protagonist Colin Smith has become a teenage petty criminal since the death of his working-class father. Not only has his company awarded the Smiths a pittance as a death benefit, but Colin’s mother is lavishing the money on her “fancy man,” whom she’s seeing before her husband’s demise. Colin feels rage, but has no productive way to channel it.

After getting caught burgling a bakery, he is sent to a “borstal,” the British equivalent of a juvenile home. The school’s governor (akin to headmaster) discovers that his new arrival has a phenomenal gift for long-distance running. Seeing a chance to boost the bortsal’s reputation (as well as his own), the influential governor offers Smith an easy stay—as well as future influence—if he will win the Blue Ribbon Prize Cup against a school of upper-class students.

Smith agrees and is allowed to leave the high-security borstal to practice. His morning runs through the English countryside give him the first true pleasure he’s experienced in a long time. The reader hopes he has finally found a métier that gives life meaning—but not so.

Smith divides the world into two groups: “in-laws ” (the law-abiding, property-owning rich) and the “out-laws ” (those like himself who have no stake in this system) (https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature/articles/the-1950s-english-literatures-angry-decade).

During the race he takes an early lead and puts plenty of distance between himself and the other team’s star runner. Nearing the finish line, Smith appears all alone. The cup is certain! The governor is ecstatic!

But ten feet before breaking the tape, Smith stops cold in his tracks, refusing to finish the race. The other runners pass him as the governor looks on in disappointment and humiliation.

The story raises key questions, especially for teenagers. Is Smith a rebel with or without a cause? Would winning the cup have been a sell-out to the establishment? Or has the young man cut off his nose to spite his face and denied himself advantages the governor offers?  Students fall half into each category, which makes for some excellent discussions and papers.