It's an overcoming story of sorts to be sure, the kind Americans in particular love to tell and are proud to repeat, but it's also this experience that clouds my view of Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Somehow, I made it out of high school in the late 90's, as well as through my B.S. in English Education by 2002, without reading The Catcher in the Rye. I'm still not sure how that happened, being the literary giant that the book is. But grad school (an M.Ed in English between 2006-2008) tripped me up and I ended up with Catcher as required reading twice. I was excited...until I started reading.
The Catcher in the Rye flashes back on the story of Holden Caulfield, a teenage boy with an inability to get his life together. Holden stands on the brink of adolescence and all that catapults you into adulthood, which causes him to grasp at his quickly and undeniably slipping childhood innocence. Told through his unreliable first person narration, the story flows in a stream-of-consciousness thought process, giving it a unique narration and writing style. I don't want to say too much and possibly ruin the story for anyone because it's a book that when you love it, you LOVE it. On the other hand, for those like me, it's a book that when you hate it, you HATE it.
And hate it I did. Upon first reading, I came to class with a list of reasons Holden Caulfield is a whiny baby who's life isn't worse off than anyone else's and just needs smacked around a little to set him straight. "Class" consisted only of my favorite professor, Dr. Ford, as I took YA Lit as an independent study that semester. Dr. Ford, technically retired from teaching, had read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time as a teenager and loved Holden Caulfield. She asked how I couldn't help but feel sorry for him? At that point in time my answer was along the lines of, life throws curve balls and you have to step up to the plate if you want to make it work. The "suck it up" work ethic life had demanded of me thus far. (Really, think in terms of any "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" metaphor there.) At age 26, with kids ages 6, 4, and 1 year-old, working a full time teaching job, attending grad school, and practically living as a single parent, all I could see was that whiny, not-so-poor Holden Caulfield needed a swift kick to knock some sense into him.
But time and experience has a way of smoothing our rough edges and re-presenting thoughts for reevaluation. A few years after grad school, the high school I teach at moved me from Junior High to Senior High, where I would teach American Literature...and yep, you guessed it, Holden Caulfield was waiting for me. I avoided him the first year I taught American Lit, but by second year, I pulled the book off the shelf and jumped in. I didn't like him any better, but I noticed my students did. By year three I couldn't ignore how much some students identified with Holden's teenage angst and true confusion by life.
I've taught The Catcher in the Rye at two different points in the school year this time around. What do I think of Holden now? I can say that I do, at least, feel bad for him. He does have a valid reason for his upset. I can recall my own teenage angst and will even admit that it's possible that Holden and I would be friends had I read Catcher as a teen, before adulthood descended heavily upon me. Hitting the world of "who am I" a few years beyond my original meeting with Holden, I can look back and understand his confusion between what you feel and what the world demands. What you want and what you have to do...or do you? I see Holden through my students' eyes more often than not, using my original impressions more as a devil's advocate to see how and if they will defend him. Most usually do.
So, until next year Holden, you and I will remain as we are. Not quite friends, but no longer enemies.