“And then it’s always that one word that makes you so different and puts you outside the overlap of everyone else; and that word is so fucking big and loud, it’s the only thing anyone ever hears when your name is spoken.
And whenever that happens to us, all the other words that make us the same disappear in it’s shadow.”
“Winger” by Andrew Smith starts with Ryan Dean West, 14, having his head shoved in a toilet. As he takes note of his current situation, we learn a little about him. West, also known as “Winger” because of his position on the rugby team, hates football players, and is top of his class as a junior, loves to draw and has a wicked sense of humor about the world around him.
He attends Pine Mountain, a boarding school he refers to as “the best school around for the rich deviants of tomorrow.” This year, West has been moved to Opportunity Hall, a dorm for troublemakers, to room with Chas, a fellow rugby player he doesn’t get along with. So the year starts off with some difficulty, in addition to the fact he is trying to overcome being a younger man in high school, where any kind of difference makes you stand out.
West believes that the main difference of each person, whether it be age, size, sexuality or gender, can be the one aspect that blinds those around us to anything else. No matter what else he does, he feels that his age is what defines him to his peers. Kids at his school may be known by identifiers such as “the gay guy” or “the nice guy,” but at only 14 years old, he is known as “the young guy.”
This makes him feel that he has to work hard to gain respect from his fellow students and the attention of his best friend, Annie (whom he is madly in love with, of course). As the year progresses, he tries to break out of his identifier and broaden his mind about others’.
West has many typical teen experiences. He sneaks out of his dorm at night, gets into fights with friends, falls head over heels in love, acts incredibly stupid and even gets bullied by other students.
West slowly realizes that his best guy friend is Joey, a young man who also happens to be gay, and his girl best friend, Annie, is someone worth fighting for. He gets to know students outside of his circle and watches his friends overcome their personal battles each day as he confronts his own. He does his best to be a good friend in the face of all the hormones, stupidity and headstrong beliefs that tend to fill teens with such surety when they are young.
“Winger” is hilarious, imaginative and heartbreaking. The comics included throughout the book and the sense of humor add a light undertone to balance the seriousness of some of West’s experiences.
I couldn’t help but be charmed by this book. It made me laugh all the way through and then completely broke my heart.
It begins with a statement that reverberates throughout the rest of the book – “Joey told me nothing ever goes back exactly the way it was, that things expand and contract – like breathing, but you could never fill your lungs up with the same air twice.”
And by the end, we learn with Ryan Dean West how one incredibly beautiful and inescapably hard year can change everything.