Saturday, January 30, 2010

My "Catcher in the Rye" Story

Everyone has one, don't they? The Catcher in the Rye story?

During my early twenties, I spent just a little over three semesters at a very conservative Bible college. There were a lot of rules there that governed the behavior of the students and faculty, and to be a part of the institution, everyone had to sign a form listing the things they wouldn't do. I remember signing the form as part of the application process, and I didn't agonize over it. I think that was because I was so used to my mother's strict rules that I was simply exchanging one set for the other. Once I was inside the walls of the school, though, I discovered what so many rules can do to a person.

Some people abide by the rules because they agree with them, and following them is easy. Breaking them would be difficult. But for others, they're going to do what they're going to do, and strict rules, especially in an atmosphere where people are encouraged to turn in the rule breakers, don't prevent things from happening. They only assure the things will happen in secret.

People knew where to go to see movies without being caught, to drink and smoke without being caught, to sleep with other students or even faculty without being caught. Of course, when the pretty young writing teacher admitted to a pregnancy after spending time with the handsome young student, the two were caught—and dismissed.

I never had a class with that pretty young teacher because my writing class was taught by a tired old one. I can't remember her name just now, but she had been at this institution for decades, and she was waiting to retire. She would enter the class room and slowly sit down in her chair and sigh. She spoke slowly and without expression, and the energy level she emitted wouldn't cause a spark in a light bulb.

But then one day, this worn-out teacher pulled a book from her bag that she had wrapped in brown paper so no one could see the cover, and she read aloud from it. We were all attentive and wanted to know the title, but she just kept reading. The words sounded familiar, but I couldn't place them, and then I realized something was off. Something was missing.

The teacher put down the book and confessed she had been reading from The Catcher in the Rye, and she had been skipping over the words and phrases she found offensive in order to demonstrate how we as budding writers didn't need to use "foul" words to express emotion. So, that was it—she was reading a classic novel about youthful angst but had eliminated the most powerful words that expressed Holden's honest thoughts and fears, watered it down into a dishonest story so no one would flinch.

Two things I learned from that experience: that a teacher had to wrap a book in paper so no one would report her to the department chair was pathetic, and that this same teacher who had been forced into such a dishonest act would perpetuate the same ideas that turned her into a tired and expressionless person was more offensive to me than anything J. D. Salinger had written. Holden Caufield would have called what that teacher did, or tried to do, a sham, a goddam sham.


Madame DeFarge said...

It was a big influence on me too, much like everyone else that I knew. Just a great timeless classic.

Shan said...

I've got this book in my night stand and have only begun to read it. I keep forgetting it's there honestly and I made a note to myself that it was for boys so I hadn't jumped on it entirely. You've piqued my interest now. I WILL READ THIS CLASSIC-in my own entirely scandalous way. ;)

I had to sign one of those rule forms at my college too. I think mine even said I couldn't dance. We ALL danced.

Lulubelle B said...

I know I read it in high school, but don't really remember it. I went to public school on Long Island and remember there was a school district a few miles away called Island Trees. They were very serious about protecting their students from "dangerous" books. Every book they banned was part of my high school's curriculum. Go figure...

dive said...

One of my all time favourite books, Robyn. RIP JD.

Ah, censorship; the method through which frightened authority figures shoot themselves in the foot by unwittingly giving students a 'must read' list.

MmeBenaut said...

Hear, hear! One wonders why the rules were written in the first place; most often they simply promote manipulation and lying, in my humble opinion.

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