Nineteen Minutes by Jodie Picoult

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That first moment when you step into a school and inhale that new carpet smell and stare in wonder at the immensity of the structure that encompasses all is magical. It’s the first step into a real social environment, where people learn about life, people, and how to solve math equations they will never get to use in real life. In the book Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult, the main characters Peter and Josie are two social pariahs spinning happily by themselves in the intolerant and uncaring school world they have been thrust into. The two children were as different as night and day. Peter: a slight, tender boy that was an easy target for the Darwinist children that comprised his classroom. Josie: a vibrant, bold girl that understood that recognized and understood qualities like sensitivity and thoughtfulness with a maturity that transcended her years. Peter’s classmates were often cruel and contemptuous towards the pair, calling them names and playing mean pranks on them. But time went on, and in the sixth grade Peter and Josie’s seemingly unbreakable bond shattered, proving no match for the awesome power of jealousy and selfish human nature. The timeworn pressures of popularity, greed, and jealousy proceed to dominate the rest of the two protagonists lives, initiating a vast rift between Peter and Josie that stretched on for years.

In this novel, Picoult wrote about characters who believed that each person had to fulfill their role in society, instead of realizing that every person cannot be categorized by a word or even an entire biography and should let their inner persona out. Nineteen Minutes implies that this confinement of personality begins in school, when parents and teachers impress upon their kids the importance of fitting the stereotypical “perfect” person. The schooling process in the book took away the individuality of every person, whether they be adult or toddler. Josie Cormier fell in with the popular crowd, and as a result she changed from her energetic, forthright self into a shallow, gossip-loving diva. Although she thought being popular was everything, she became paranoid and depressed, resulting in frequent crying spells and her abusive relationship with Matt Roysten, the alpha male football star in school. Josie’s mother, Alex Cormier, met misfortune in law school where her seemingly flawless teacher seduced her for a brief relationship that left her with a child but without a husband. Emotionally shattered by this betrayal from her role model, Alex withdraws into her job as a judge, not daring to believe in humanity and trusting implicitly in the rules of society. Peter Houghton was the most tragic victim of all subjected to the nightmare known as school. Showered with ridicule and derision, Peter clung to his pillar of support, Josie, but lost even that to the “might makes right” atmosphere in public schools. Bereft of comfort, Peter withdrew in himself and ventured into computer programming. The idea of being sovereign over reality must have been very attractive to Peter, who seemed to be able to influence nothing in the real world. In here, Peter could create games where he could take revenge on his bullies and be the hero for once. Even Matt Royston, the proverbial American poster boy, was affected by the school. During several scenes with his girlfriend Josie, he acted abusively and without rationale. He often hit Josie when she disobeyed him, or left in a burst of unexplained rage. Then, in a bizarre, bipolar manner, his demeanor would suddenly shift and he would again become the romantic, schoolboy superman that the world saw him as. The constant adulation that engulfed Matt had dragged him from the shores of reality until he saw himself superior to others. When Josie confronted him for his inhumane treatment of the so called geeks and losers, he replied, “If there’s no them, there’s no us”. Deluded and dangerous, Matt faced the constant pressure to be perfect and as a result his mind warped and became disturbingly unstable.

Considering the evidence, there is no doubt that Picoult was extremely concerned with the concept of public schooling. In her story, every character seemed to be affected negatively by the standards and the stereotypes that permeate school life. From Peter Houghton, resident nerd-turned-homicidal-killer to Matt Royston, the golden boy who only becomes dangerously obsessive part of the time, everyone is subject to the horrors that learning and socializing have become. Perhaps the widely echoed battle cry of ignorance “Why do we need to go to school?” holds some merit after all.





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