Chapter 16
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Different Worlds

A high school couple tries to bridge the social divide between wealth and poverty

Susan Beckham Zurenda’s second novel, The Girl from the Red Rose Motel, examines the challenges faced by high school lovers from opposite sides of the tracks in small-town South Carolina in 2012. As three narrators describe the events of the story in alternating chapters, Zurenda presents three very different perspectives: those of the two central characters and the teacher who is on their side.

Sterling Lovell is a popular senior with money, privilege, and opportunity in abundance. A year younger than Sterling, Hazel “Zell” Smalls lives in a cramped room in a rundown motel with her little sister and her parents, who struggle to support the family while dealing with the consequences of poverty, racism, and lack of opportunity. But when Sterling sees Zell during an in-school suspension class, he finds her “beautiful and mysterious” and, equally importantly, “delightfully forbidden, far from the socialites expected in his future.” He is immediately attracted to her “dark, deep eyes and golden skin” and his absolute certainty that pursuing her will infuriate his parents.

Zell’s dream is to graduate high school with an ROTC scholarship — her only chance for a college education. Ashamed of where and how her family lives, she works hard and doesn’t socialize much, to keep her personal life a secret. That is, until the charming Sterling Lovell steps in and throws all her careful planning into disarray: “She was stunned when out of nowhere, he asked her on a date. Zell had never been on a real date, much less with some high and mighty boy from another world. The thought terrified her. Yet, she couldn’t help but imagine it. Sterling probably had a car and money to hang out in cool places. … He must be very popular at Ramsey High with those movie-star looks. Likely he had a beautiful, blonde girlfriend who lived in a mansion on a hill, too.” [Spoiler alert: He does.]

Observing this unlikely meeting of two worlds is their 53-year-old English teacher, Angela Wilmore. Having recently transferred to Ramsey from teaching at a community college, Angela struggles to adjust to her typically “bipolar day,” populated by “kids who needed all the help she could give followed by four classes of AP students, most of whom had the world by the tail.” When Sterling’s girlfriend, Courtney, and her friends scheme to punish Zell for Sterling’s interest in her, Angela is drawn into the ensuing drama between parents and faculty.

After being suspended because of Courtney’s lies, Zell returns to school with a clearer understanding of Sterling’s world: “How stupid she’d been to think rich girls with pretty clothes were special. They looked better; they had nice manners and everything they could want, but she knew now they were no different from any other people if they were desperate. If you got in the way, same as anybody else, they might stomp on you.” No different, she thinks, from the drug addicts in the motel parking lot fighting over a needle or the prostitutes screaming at each other over who would claim the next trick.

And Angela is surprised to see Zell’s effect on Sterling, who begins to mature from a reckless, self-absorbed jerk into someone who suddenly understands that his advantages are not a given for others and who grows to truly care for Zell. He reflects on what his life might be like if he had not had parents able to pay for braces, “fat camp,” and plastic surgery: “Who would Sterling be, born into Zell’s circumstances? A fat, bitter loser because of the crap cards he’d been dealt? A combatant defending himself from all manner of trouble? A drug addict trying to escape a living hell? But not Zell. She was a survivor with an indomitable spirit.”

As Sterling and Zell try to build a loving and supportive relationship, without many role models to follow, they each begin to understand the different family and community pressures the other faces. Pressures that will either make them stronger or tear them apart.

Formerly an educator herself, Zurenda dedicates this book to her students, whose lives likely included some of the issues showcased here: homelessness, hunger, abuse, addiction, unplanned pregnancy, and other grown-up problems. The character of Angela reflects Zurenda’s own generous and compassionate heart toward her fictional characters and the very real young people they represent.

Different Worlds

Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.