A Lost Retainer, No Ivy League, and A Chance to Learn by Sarah Derringer

Digging through a dumpster on the first day of sixth grade, desperately searching for the retainer I threw away at lunch, under the scornful eyes of my mother and the entire football team pretty much set the scene for my entire middle school experience. Retainers. Braces. Head gear. Acne. Crushes, heart ache, fashion fails, spikes and dog collars, thrift store sweaters...ahh, middle school.

Experiencing Hazel Newlevant’s No Ivy League brought my own painfully awkward middle school memories back to me. Prior to reading this book, I would have preferred to keep the retainer debacle and all other such humiliation in the deeply buried quagmire of my distant past. But Newlevant’s combination of quippy text and insights laid through careful illustrations gave me pause to reconsider my regrets, and allowed for some healing and learning in the process. This edgy memoir relates Newlevant’s own middle school transition from her homeschooled bubble into a mainstream, public school-kid Youth Conservation Crew, ages 14-18. Hazel sees herself as open-minded, world wise, and trendy- I mean, she has a nose ring- pretty rebellious for a homeschooled kid, right?

She steps out with a nervous confidence, hoping to fit in with the diverse group of teen coworkers as she joins them in helping to save the ecosystem of the local park from an invasive species of ivy. Not surprisingly, Hazel quickly finds herself in social situations she is unprepared to navigate: issues of race, sex, language, drugs, socioeconomics, identity, friendship, and truth. As she seeks to pursue justice while remaining true to herself, Hazel gets a peek at the truth undergirding the essence of middle school life: the fact that learning to use empathy and compassion are the most important lessons...and they are lessons taught not in a comfy classroom or sheltered homeschool co-op, but in real life, with real people. People and relationships are messy, and rights and wrongs from textbooks can’t be applied like labels or fill-in-the-blanks. Pivotal authors make an imprint on you, change the way you think.

My favorite part of Newlevant’s new text is the connection it allowed me to create between my own present and my past. After reading No Ivy League, in reflecting on my retainer nightmare and other cringe-inducing memories, I tried on a different lens: instead of rolling my eyes and wishing it didn’t happen, I thought, “What did I learn from that experience?” “What should I have done differently?” “How did I respond to that situation?” “How did that event shape the way I treat people today?” Newlevant’s No Ivy League achieves the mission stated in her letter to the reader: “It’s intimidating to publish a story about my younger self doing and saying so many profoundly embarrassing and regrettable things, but I hope that it helps those who see their own shame reflected in mine resolve to move forward with compassion.”


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