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The Watsons go to Birmingham

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Growing up can be complicated for a boy, especially when transitioning from being a child to being a teenager. Growing up means having more responsibilities; parents demand more of older children, and these increased expectations are often met by resistance (which can take the form of rebelliousness). In The Watsons go to Birmingham, Christopher Paul Curtis develops the conflict that inevitably springs between a young teenager and his parents as he tries to resist his new responsibilities as a teenager. Byron Watson rebels against his parents; he comes to be known as a juvenile delinquent at school and in his hometown of Flint, Michigan. His constant defiance of his parents’ authority exasperates them and ends up forcing them to drive off to Birmingham, Alabama, so that Byron spends some time living with his strict grandmother, Grandma Sands. During the family’s stay at Birmingham, however, something changes inside of Byron. Byron no longer rebels against his parents; he assumes his role as the family’s oldest child (and as a teenager), and his actions become more responsible and family-oriented given the context of racial segregation that affects his family, causing particular distress on Kenny, Byron’s younger brother.

At the beginning of the novel Byron is presented as a bully and a delinquent. He was no respect for his younger brother (whom he frequently bullies, both at home and at school) or for his parents. Byron is constantly getting into trouble because of selfish and rebellious attitude that rapidly puts him into conflict with his parents. Daniel and Wilona Watson are loving parents who want what is best for their three children (Byron, Kenny and Joey). Byron, however, appears not to realize or care about his parents’ intentions (or about their expectations of him). Byron is the Watson’s oldest child; he is a teenager and as such is expected to protect and guide his younger brother and sister. Byron, however, chooses to skip school, plays with matches, and even did a conk hairstyle on his hair. He clearly has no respect for his parents’ authority, nor does he have respect for his siblings (or anyone else for that matter).

Given that the Watsons are at a loss regarding how to correct Byron’s impetuous nature, reckless behavior, they choose to go ahead and went to the South to Birmingham to leave Byron at his grandmother’s house. They expect that while living with his grandmother, Byron will learn about discipline and respect (given that Grandma Sands is known for being overly strict). The Watsons’ stay at Birmingham is brief and Byron ends up coming back to Flint with the rest of his family. However, the trip proved most effective, as it brought about a major change in Byron’s attitude (towards his parents, his brother and sister and society in general). The Watsons’ trip to Birmingham took place in 1963; it was dangerous time for African Americans to be in the south given how violent racial segregation had become. The Watsons knew that it was dangerous to head for south, but they did so anyways (thinking about what was best for Byron). After a few days, however, tragedy struck the family when Kenny went swimming to Collier’s Landing; he is almost drowned by a whirlpool, but his brother Byron saves him. Following this tragic event, the church which Joey attends for Sunday school is bombed; she miraculously escapes unharmed, but this bombing prompts the Watsons to return home. Kenny is greatly affected by that bombing; he alienates himself from others, and once again it is Byron who steps in talking to his brother, comforting and reassuring him that everything will be alright.

 The tragic events that the family experienced truly had a changing effect on Byron’s personality. From being a self-centered rebellious young teen, he quickly transformed into a selfless, caring, respectful and grounded individual who worried about his family’s well-being (and even placed his family’s interests over his own, as evidenced by the way in which he risked his own life to save his brother Kenny). It appears that watching his loved ones in real danger triggered this change. He came to realize that he almost lost both his brother and sister in Birmingham; this surely made him realize how much he valued and loved his family (which, in turn, prompted him to demonstrate his true feelings towards them). During the family’s stay at Birmingham, and even upon their return to Flint, Byron behaves as a changed person. He is no longer defying his parents, nor is he worrying about finding ways to bully his brother (or others). He is acting more mature; he is starting to live up to his parents’ expectations, and he is also giving his family (particularly his brother Kenny) the value, respect and love that it truly deserves.

Transition from being a child to becoming a teenager can be a trying experience. However, there are occurrences that may prompt people to make rapid adjustment in coming to terms with demands, duties and expectations that come with older age. In The Watsons go to Birmingham, Christopher Paul Curtis presents the story of young teenager who struggles in facing the reality that surrounds him. He starts off as a rebellious delinquent that has no respect for his siblings or his parents, but after a family trip to Birmingham everything changes. After the near loss of both his younger brother and sister, Byron Watson realizes that at times in which African Americans were discriminated against, the family needs to stay together. He came to realize that he should to be a better son to his parents and a better brother to his younger brother and sister. Byron Watson came to realize that he must be a better human being; this is exactly what he did.

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