It was probably a good move, starting my tenth-graders off with The Catcher in the Rye. To tell you the truth, I hadn’t been looking forward to it, I really hadn’t. All this madman stuff had happened to me since I last read the book, which had left kind of a bad taste in my mouth. The last time I’d been fond of Holden had been when I myself was sixteen, despite having dated various incarnations of him in the mean time. Probably because I’d let all of those incarnations treat me kind of crummy. So I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be going back to that goddamn mindset all over again, if you know what I mean. I’d been thinking of Holden as the biggest phony I knew for more than a decade, and I had gotten pretty comfortable thinking of him that way, I guess.
And I’m not going to lie to you or anything like that and tell you all of them, my students, I mean, loved Holden. To tell you the truth, his goddamn cursing and smoking all the time really gave them a pain in the ass. They did their fair share of bellyaching about how Holden’s always going on about this person or that person being a phony, when really he’s the phoniest one of all. But somehow that got me to thinking about how much I liked the guy. Not the incarnations of him I dated. But the guy Salinger was writing about. The one that he sort of based on himself. That sorry, lost, confused, guilt-ridden, gullible, foul-mouthed, depressed boy, getting drunk and moping around New York City. I suddenly found myself better able to relate to Holden as an adult than I did (or at least think I did) as a teenager his own age.
But here’s what happened. My students started seeing themselves in Holden. Obviously (hopefully) not the drinking and smoking and chatting up prostitutes part. In fact, they were still mostly complaining about how bad Holden was, and how he was still giving them a pain in the ass. But they didn’t think he was a phony anymore after we started talking about how goddamn sad the guy really was. When I told them about his red hunting hat – how it was the same color as his dead brother’s hair, and how he kept putting in on for emotion protection, they suddenly got how lonely and miserable he was. You know, walking around New York like that, without anyone to talk to. That really got them. And when I explained how in the beginning when someone has stolen his best camel-hair coat and now all he has is this hat, and how it’s all a metaphor for losing his sense of security when his brother died, that really knocked them out, it really did. Because you find me one goddamn teenager who doesn’t know what it’s like to be so damn miserable and alone, so empty feeling and confused, and I’ll show you a teenager who’s lying to himself.
But what really killed me was – after showing all that empathy and everything – they came around to Holden at the expense of any other character who could maybe be seen as giving Holden a hard time. Phoebe they really went for. I’m telling you, they were so hard on that kid for not living up to being the bastion of childlike purity Holden was making her out to be. And Mr. Antolini. Boy, that got awkward. Here I am, their English teacher and everything, and there they are, my students. And you’ve got Mr. Antolini, who’s drunk and all but really I don’t think actually trying to molest Holden or anything like that, but really being so goddamn stupid and irresponsible with a fragile kid. I felt for the guy, I really did. But the students hated the guy’s guts. It was pretty hard to defend him, it really was. But in the months since we read it, since I’ve gotten to know them all a lot better, I’m trying to defend Mr. Antolini through my own actions. It’s hard to be a sympathetic ear, a shoulder to lean on, that one good adult in a kid’s life. Probably harder these days than Salinger ever figured on, I can tell you that. But I hope I can still be that person for some of my students, if they need it. And I can hope that I do a better goddamn job than the example Salinger set out in his book.
Oh, and I’ve ruined “Auld Lang Syne” for them too. I sang “Comin’ Through the Rye” at them three goddamn times, and I’ve pretty much ruined them for ever hearing that tune again without thinking of me, standing in front of the class, warbling at them, offkey as hell. So I’ve got that going for me.