Friday, January 29, 2010

Sweet dreams, Holden Caulfield

I didn't meet Holden Caulfield when I was a teenager. I attended a small, all-girl Catholic school and I guess the teachers there didn't feel that adolescent girls needed to mess with the likes of what they must have seen as a subversive teenage boy, a high-school drop out with a penchant for the the f-bomb. I guess. Whatever the reason, it was a huge disservice on their part to keep Holden from us. When I first read Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, I remember thinking, in how many ways would my teen years have been easier if I'd met Holden earlier? If I'd been given him as a vehicle through which to realize that all of my fears and disillusions weren't new, weren't unique; that I wasn't alone. I hadn't been running away from home, with absent parents, destined for the psych-ward. I hadn't lost a sibling. I had been an only child, a middle-class honor student. But I still felt Holden Caulfield, when I finally met him as a young teacher, reach into a quiet forgotten space of my mind and say, "Remember that? Remember when you felt that, too?"

I introduced Holden Caulfield to hundred of teenagers over the course of my decade-long teaching career. Some recoiled from him in disgust, "Miss S, he's a pervert!" they'd howl, or "Why should I believe anything he says? He told me in the first couple of chapters that he's a flat-out liar! Maybe none of this happened at all?!" or "Why does he have to swear so much?!" They were either the kids whose own fears and disillusions were so deep down inside of them that acknowledgement of Salinger's character threatened to break down a facade of strength that they just couldn't run the risk of losing, or they were the type of kid whose entire life peaked in high school and they were currently riding too high to see the crash ahead of them.

But most students found something in Caulfield to connect to. They appreciated his paralyzing grief over losing his brother, Allie, talking for entire class periods at a time about Holden chanting "Don't let me disappear, Allie. Don't let me disappear," as he stepped off curbs to cross the street. They found his disillusionment with education powerful. They cringed for him as he called Sally on the pay phone, wishing that for just a second he could be "normal" and get it right. They gave a big old "right on!" when Holden complained about his brother DB being a sell-out in Hollywood (kids love to condemn anyone that allows their dreams to be corrupted by outside influences--or at least they used to). More than a few were deeply moved by Holden's fierce love for and desire to protect his little sister, Phoebe, who in so many ways is more mature and ready to face life than is Holden.

It's been years since I either read or taught The Catcher in the Rye, but upon hearing of JD Salinger's death yesterday at the age of 91, I felt compelled to pull one of the many copies of it I've owned off the shelf and carefully go back through it's pages. It is a copy I used in the class room, so it is dog-earred and annotated to the point of exhaustion. The maroon and gold cover hangs to the body of the book by a thin wisp of paper connecting cover to spine. It is a well-loved book that has sat on my shelf for years, untouched. Even though I've lived in three different homes since I last read the book, I knew exactly where to find it--on the shelf I always seem to reserve for my favorites. It sits beside Alan Paton's Cry, The Beloved Country, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns.

I think I've mentioned before that I left teaching abruptly when I was put on bed rest during my pregnancy with Ethan. I may have also mentioned that I have never missed it. By the time I left teaching, it had become an exercise in teaching students to pass a test, to satisfy No Child Left Behind requirements and to create data that could show our students were all learning the same thing, at the same time, through the same methods, for the same end results. I do believe Holden Caulfield would have spontaneously combusted in an environment like that.

But yesterday, when I posted the online news article about Salinger's death on my Facebook page, one of my former students responded that she'd read that book in my class and that she'd liked it so much. It brought me back to my early years in the class room, when I was discovering this book for the first time, too; in that first year, I was often only one chapter ahead of my students (ssssh, don't tell). Yesterday was the first time in four years (and one week) that I missed teaching.

As a teacher, Holden Caulfield is a perfect character. Unpacking him is endless; understanding him completely is a Sisyphean task. Trying to explain the how's and why's of Holden opened up hundreds of essay topics and hours of conversation. As a teacher (and as a former teenager riddled with my own kind of angst), I adore Holden Caulfield.

As a mother, Holden Caulfield stops me cold in my tracks. So isolated, so misunderstood, so filled to the brim with anger and confusion and grief and fear. Though the story timeline only spans 3-4 days of Holden's seventeenth year, Salinger makes it clear that his character's angst is the culmination of a lifetime of experiences. His parents are so oblivious to him, so detached from what their son is going through. But we see that from his perspective, not theirs. We don't get a full account of what they have done for him, if anything, in the past, to alleviate his suffering. Is it possible that they are loving and caring, but Holden is still this tormented? As a parent, Holden Caulfield makes me wonder how I can ensure my child never feels this lost. And makes me fear and realize that, as he gets older and life shows him it's ugly side, I won't be able to protect him.

I am extremely sad that the world lost such a great voice yesterday in the death of Salinger. Although he lived the majority of his life in isolation in New Hampshire (which leads me to wonder to what extent Salinger was Caulfield), the voice of his most famous character continues to speak above and beyond any other for adolescents, generations later.


Kayla said...

Oh how I love that book.

karen said...

"And makes me fear and realize that, as he gets older and life shows him it's ugly side, I won't be able to protect him."

Yeah, you won't, but take heart in the fact that as a parent, that is not your job. Your job (which you are doing and will continue to do to an amazing degree) is to prepare him to handle whatever that ugly side of life throws at him. And lucky for all of us parents, great literature is there to supplement our efforts to that end.

Jen said...

Lovely post. Would you believe that I didn't read Catcher in the Rye until my 20s? Better late than never, I guess! Such an impactful book. In fact, a good friend of mine (English major) named her son Holden. :-)

Therapeutic Ramblings said...

That was a great post.

JD will be missed. I can't believe he died, and I can't believe it has been so long since I have read about Holden.

Not Afraid to Use It said...

A friend and I just had a 2am discussion about the same thing: How do we equip our children to cope with the things life throws at them in a way that they feel connected to us and each other? Our kids out in the world is a terrifying notion because at the end of the day all we want is for them to be safe and happy.

And thank you for giving me permission not to miss teaching. I forget that sometimes. Great post.

Corinne said...

This brought back so many memories... I read that book over and over my freshman year of high school, and again in college at some point. I felt like it was written for me, and me alone :)
I hadn't thought about it until I saw that Salinger passed away. And you hit on something, I wonder what other works I so enjoyed as a self indulgent young adult could I look at now in a completely different light...