I’ve been teaching The Catcher in the Rye for years. I believe every American should read, if nothing more, these three classics: The Adventures of Huck Finn, The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye. Over the past years, the enthusiasm for Catcher has waned. Students complain it isn’t relevant, the language is dated, Holden is nothing more than a whiner; students, today, claim they are more mature and self directed…
They just don’t see themselves in Holden. I beg to differ.
In an effort to get students to delve deep into thinking about Holden’s characterization (as we approach Holden from a psychological perspective, later on, and go on to compare him to one of the characters in The Breakfast Club), I host Socratic Seminars.
This is how it works. For homework, the class is given a reading assignment and they must write questions gleaned from it and important quotes in a Double Entry Notebook format. In class the next day, I divide the number of students in half. Half form a circle at the center of the room for a fishbowl discussion, while the other have form a larger circle on the outside. These students sign into a class chat room, hosted by Today’s Meet, where they hold a parallel discussion to what’s going on orally in the fishbowl.
For the last 10 minutes of class, I post the discussion thread from Today’s Meet up on the Smartboard to open the discussion to the whole class. On a normal day, the discussion becomes lively, even heated sometimes. While students on the whole often have difficulty connecting to Holden in an explicit way, they demonstrate just how connected they are (even if they can’t see it, at the time, themselves) by the way the discussion evolves.
On this particular day, I instruct the class to sign on using their own names (so I can give them credit for their questions and comments: I’m taking notes throughout the lesson, making observations, noting the levels of thinking they demonstrate with their questions and responses to contribute to a cumulative grade at the end of the novel) as I always do.
Only, today, one wise guy signs in as RandomKid. When I ask who it is, he or she (I’ll use he for the purpose of this story) responds:
I laugh it off and ask him to sign in as himself, which he does; only, unbeknownst to me and the rest of the class, at the time, he doesn’t sign off as RandomKid. He must be using two monikers/screens simultaneously because I can account for everyone in the chat room plus RandomKid. A stir ensues because the class just wants to begin, so we do. I’m thinking RandomKid doesn’t realize I’m monitoring the discussion on my IPad because he continues to post. I’m thinking he does so for the element of surprise during the last ten minutes when I share the thread with the whole class. What he doesn’t anticipate is that I’m seeing the nature of his comments escalate because he, apparently, isn’t getting the attention or response from the students he was hoping for within the chat room.
Here are his posts:
I stop the discussion in a grandiose fashion when he uses the “F” word. Not only does it go against my classroom policy, it goes against the school’s policy and the responsible use policy for technology. I tell them if “they” are too immature to participate in this forum, they can read silently for the remainder of class. Needless to say, I’m angry, the students in the fishbowl have no idea what’s going on, and those in the chat room are upset that we have to cut short the discussion. After several pleas for RandomKid to come forward (from both me and his classmates), so the whole class doesn’t have to deal with the fallout of this incident, he, to this day, has not. I’m not surprised, but I am saddened.
Hindsight has allowed me to look at this from a different perspective, and I’d like to share, here, the letter I’d write to RandomKid if I could:
While you think you may have been acting rebelliously to get a laugh out of your classmates, put me on the spot, or even express your frustrations with this class, this novel or school in general, what you have done is demonstrate what a modern-day Holden Caulfield would do.
He’d pretend he’s someone he isn’t. He’d mask himself under the guise of a screen name and run, if the case may be. He’d protest the rules of society without having the confidence to express his thoughts as himself. You call him a liar, well so are you if you can’t come forward to own your actions. He’d call people phony behind their backs or talk behind doors about what an injustice it is that there are penalties he’d be held accountable for (such as no longer being allowed to use a chat room or being expelled from school).
You see, RandomKid, this is part of your development. It’s an aspect of coming of age and teen angst, all the things we discuss in class, that you are so adamant you are far removed from. You question authority. You defy it, even. You think you’d like to live in world in absent of rules, where you wouldn’t have to attend school or take this class or read this seemingly irrelevant book.
The truth is that if you admitted to seeing yourself in Holden, you’d have to face pieces of yourself that you don’t like very much. Perhaps, it’s your apathy for life in general or your utter disdain for all things that equate to authority. But, what I think, RandomKid, is that you’re scared. I think you’re afraid to grow up, just like Holden– afraid to lose your innocence because, let’s face it, it’s a scary prospect. It’s difficult to feel confused about who you are and all things this life represents that you couldn’t possibly understand. It’s far easier to think you’ve got it figured out, to pretend you are mature and have direction because, after all, if you could fool yourself, you could fool everyone else, right?
As your teacher and as a person who cares about what you think and feel, moreover, as a survivor of your stage in life when all things are uncertain, I’m here to tell you, you will survive. You will grow from even this (seemingly insignificant) immature act of posing as RandomKid.
Growing up isn’t about not making mistakes; in fact, it’s just the opposite. It’s about trying personas on to see what fits (I hope yours as RandomKid isn’t the one that does). Making mistakes isn’t what defines you as a person, recognizing them demonstrates your true character. Having the ability to look inside, authentically, and communicate honestly is what growing up is all about. It’s from taking an incident like this and not just feeling wronged, somehow, but learning from it. I’ll leave you with these words from Catcher:
Thank you, RandomKid, for reminding me of one such lesson; moreover, when you see a lesson coming back at you, you’ll recognize it, confidently, appreciatively, to acknowledge it as such, and realize you really were never just a random kid, in the first place.