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Looking back

The real message of The Catcher in the Rye – A Teacher’s Perspective

Like all of us who read The Catcher in the Rye, and like many of us who teach the novel, I was saddened by the death of J.D. Salinger.   But I also have been saddened by the eulogies about this most well-known unknown author.

What’s especially sad – from this teacher’s perspective – is that most folks seem to have missed the point of the novel.   Of course Catcher is about a troubled teen trying to work his way through adolescence in a world peopled by phonies.   And, yes, the broader context of Holden Caulfield’s story – the isolated, elite world of private schools in Cold War America – is important.

But all of that is landscape, and none of it helps us to understand the story’s central question:  Why is he so messed up?   And in the same way that nearly everyone around Holden reacts to the manifestations of his troubles – the smoking, drinking and swearing – and not the reason he behaves as he does, for years my students have fixated on his bad habits.   And then I ask them:  Why is this kid who has money, two parents, a successful older brother and a sister who adores him in such a bad place?   Eventually we get to Allie, Holden’s younger brother, who died of leukemia.

Throughout the story, Holden tells us it’s all about Allie, how the grief he had for his beloved sibling led to his broken hand, how he carries Allie’s mitt for comfort and how he prays to Allie to save him.   For me, that is the thread that links all of Holden’s good and bad choices together, that is the layer we must reach to really understand this story, and that is what we adults can look to in order to really recognize the weight and beauty of Salinger’s book.

Holden is meaningful today because, even though he is white and privileged, like too many children he is hurting and invisible.   His absent parents send him off to boarding school, his older brother is away pursuing his career, his teachers sort of try to help the poor guy, and his peers are too screwed up themselves to save their pal.   Only his sister Phoebe understands Holden and, to borrow the cliché of my students, is “there for him.”   Holden tells her of his plan to run away, and unlike everyone else, who advise him to consider the consequences of his actions (so teacher-like), Phoebe’s response is to pack her suitcase and go with him.

She knows what no one else knows – that to rescue someone, you don’t hand them a pamphlet, you take their hand.  

In the movies “Precious” and “The Blind Side,” we see perfect examples of how this works:  Suffering young people are saved when those with Phoebe-like sensibilities intervene.   It’s the only way.

So here’s this teacher’s take-home message:  We all need to be Phoebe and look out for those around us, our friends and family and especially all the children everywhere.   We all need to be that “catcher in the rye.”

I hope I got that right, Mr. Salinger.

This essay was written by Gene Kahane, an English teacher at Encinal High School in Alameda (in northern California).   Reprinted with his permission.

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