When she was 16 years old, S.E. Hinton wrote one of the most poignant, insightful young-adults novels ever written: The Outsiders. The basic premise is that two different cliques in the neighborhood do not get along; the Greasers are the rough-and-tumble, fiercely-loyal, working-class group of teenagers, while the Socs (short for Socials) are the spoiled, get everything they want, rich kids who love to pick on the Greasers.
(Spoiler Alert!) Early in the novel two young Greasers, Ponyboy and Johnny, are bullied and attacked by a group of Socs. In his defense, Johnny pulls a knife and ends up killing one of the Socs who was trying to drown Ponyboy and Johnny in the park fountain.
They realize the gravity of their actions and make arrangements to leave the city and hide out in an abandoned church way outside of town. During that time, while they are stuck with nowhere else to go, the following episode occurs from the point of view of Ponyboy:
“One morning I woke up earlier than usual. Johnny and I slept huddled together for warmth—Dally had been right when he said it would get cold where we were going. Being careful not to wake Johnny up, I went to sit on the steps and smoke a cigarette. The dawn was coming then. All the lower valley was covered with mist, and sometimes little pieces of it broke off and floated away in small clouds. The sky was lighter in the east, and the horizon was a thin golden line. The clouds changed from gray to pink, and the mist was touched with gold. There was a silent moment when everything held its breath, and then the sun rose. It was beautiful.
‘Golly’— Johnny’s voice made me jump—‘That sure was pretty.’
‘Yeah.’ I sighed, wishing I had some paint to do a picture with while the sight was still fresh in my mind.
‘The mist was what was pretty,’ Johnny said. ‘All gold and silver.’
‘Uhmmmmm,’ I said, trying to blow a smoke ring.
‘Too bad it couldn’t stay like that all the time.’
‘Nothing gold can stay.’ I was remembering a poem I’d read once.
“Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”
Johnny was staring at me. ‘Where’d you learn that? That was what I meant.’
‘Robert Frost wrote it. He meant more to it than I’m getting’, though.’ I was trying to find the meaning the poet had in mind, but it eluded me. ‘I always remembered it because I never quite got what he meant by it.’
‘You know,’ Johnny said slowly, ‘I never noticed colors and clouds and stuff until you kept reminding me about them. It seems like they were never there before.’”
This insightful conversation is the foundation for Johnny’s last words to Ponyboy: “Stay Gold!” It is an excellent example of figurative language, because with just two words: “Stay Gold”, Johnny’s words represent the entire meaning of Frost’s poem and he is making a dying request to Ponyboy to not become jaded, callused and impervious to the rest of the world.
After reading this novel, many of my kids were drawn to the two words: “Stay Gold”. They understood that those two words meant volumes more than what the two words would mean if taken out of context. My kids understood what those two words represented, and one of the greatest gifts I have ever received is the number of My Kids who wrote in my yearbook to “Stay Gold”. I cannot think of a more honorable compliment…