Sam’s throat clenched as he plucked the slimy creature from the plastic cup held before him. Dangling in the air from his fingers, the worm twisted and curled, searching for the moist soil it had so recently inhabited.
“You gotta do it,” Billy said with a smile of encouragement.
“Yeah,” Tanner added. “We all did. Now it’s your turn.”
Sam nodded, looking at his five friends and swallowed the lump that had formed at the back of his mouth. “I know. Just gimme a sec.” He grimaced, then lifted the squirming little beast higher and parted his lips.
“Go! Go! Go!” the other boys chanted.
A piece of dirt landed on Sam’s tongue, making him flinch. Steeling himself, he opened his mouth wider and closed his eyes. Here goes nothing, he thought and released the wiggling worm from his fingers…
— — —
Scenes like this one happen almost every day during the summer in America and probably elsewhere in the world. Growing up is a long series of rites of passage.
Hold on, you say. A rite of passage is something grandiose. Like tribal or ceremonial.
Often they are, yes. We are in the season of graduations, which is what got me thinking about this subject in the first place. My younger daughter graduated high school this past weekend. (Whew! We made it!) But rites of passage aren’t always accompanied by pomp and circumstance.
A rite of passage is considered to have three phases: separation, transition, and reincorporation. From Wikipedia:
“The first phase (of separation) comprises symbolic behavior signifying the detachment of the individual or group … from an earlier fixed point in the social structure.” There is often a detachment or “cutting away” from the former self in this phase, which is signified in symbolic actions and rituals. For example, the cutting of the hair for a person who has just joined the army. He or she is “cutting away” the former self: the civilian.
The transition (liminal) phase is the period between states, during which one has left one place or state but has not yet entered or joined the next. “The attributes of liminality or of liminal personae (“threshold people”) are necessarily ambiguous.”
In the third phase (reaggregation or reincorporation) the passage is consummated [by] the ritual subject.” Having completed the rite and assumed their “new” identity, one re-enters society with one’s new status.
As a writer, it’s important to understand these phases — especially when writing for young people — as they can guide you in the structure of your story. In the scene above, we can imagine Sam and his group of friends have been together for some time and want to form a stronger, more meaningful relationship with one another. Maybe they create their own “club” — no girls allowed, of course! — and decide on the initiation process of swallowing a worm as a symbol of brotherhood and commitment. The boys aren’t thinking in these terms, but they are the framework from which the actions are derived. The boys separate themselves from their peers by forming this club, and Sam, even though the boys are all his friends, is separated from them because he hasn’t yet performed the rite.
The scene itself describes phase two, which is the process of the transition. Sam works his way from being outside the club, to becoming a member. After he successfully completes the task, he can then rejoin his friends and the bond between all of them is stronger as a result.
What are some other aspects of growing up that could be considered “rites of passage”? Things like getting your driver’s license, to me, certainly qualify, but even events such as losing your first tooth, or riding a bicycle, or going to your first dance in middle school all have characteristics which identify them as rites of passage. Can you think of more examples?
Middle grade literature inevitably describes elements of growth with its characters. In writing these stories, think back to times in your life when you went through a rite of passage. Remember your uncertainty and apprehension during phases one and two, and then recall your sense of satisfaction and belonging encompassed within phase three. If you can incorporate these feelings in your narrative, I think you’ll go a long way toward crafting meaningful and identifiable characters for your readers.
— — —
… Sam swallowed as quickly as he could. He felt the worm slide all the way down, sending shivers through his body. Sam clamped his mouth shut as his stomach announced the new arrival with a gurgle. No way did he want to have the thing make the return trip!
“Woohoo!” the boys cheered. Billy leaned in and slapped Sam playfully on the back. “Nice!” his friend said.
“Hey,” Tanner said with a sly smile. “My sister’s having a sleepover tonight. Let’s go catch some frogs and give them a good scare!”
In a circle, the boys grinned and eyed each other. “Yeah,” Billy said. “Let’s do it.”
Tanner turned and ran for the pond on the other side of the park where they played. “Last one there’s a rotten egg!” he shouted over his shoulder.
Sam and the others sprinted after him. Man! Sam thought with the wind whipping his hair. This is going to be an awesome summer!
— — —
Alan Tucker, author of The Mother-Earth Series (A Measure of Disorder, A Cure for Chaos, and Mother’s Heart), as well as the older teen science fiction series, Tales of Uncertainty (Knot in Time, and the newly released Abandon Hope), is a dad, a graphic designer, and a soccer coach. Mostly in that order. He’s had a lifelong adoration of books, beginning with Encyclopedia Brown, progressing through Alan Dean Foster’s Flinx, and continuing on with the likes of Jim Butcher, Rachel Caine and Naomi Novik, to name a few.
He has never swallowed a worm or used a frog to scare anyone.