Reading “Catcher” with High School Juniors During a Pandemic, and Other Activities

Yes, I have been busy for the last two months and blogging has not been one of my activities, so I felt an explanation necessary.

Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. Thanks to the Little, Brown and Company for drawing.

A teacher friend of mine at one of the high schools asked me to start the year for her in her English III classes. She enticed me by suggesting I could read ”Catcher in the Rye” with them. She had a unit plan all drawn up fro it. Well, I bit on that, and it was really fun and interesting. This is not a high income, high academic school. I wondered how many kids would get involved with it. But Holden Caulfield’s nonconformist, underachieving, emotionally damaged personality won out with a majority of them.

I read many of the major parts aloud —four times a day sometimes— so not to put all the burden on them to read on their own. I had a captive audience. I was curious how effectively I could read Holden’s free-flowing and affect-filled narrative. I did OK, sometimes all I could notice was the silence of the room as I read; students were either listening or quietly involved in their own thing—-social media or games. I tried to diminish those options but it is more like choosing your poison — off-task and disruptive or off-.task and quiet.

A large number of students expressed appreciation for the book as expressed in their essay answers. Just the unusual amount they wrote was testimony to their commitment. I felt obligated to read almost all of it, since I preached that detail and subtlety was necessary to give this book its due. It was a blessing and a curse, as I read and read over 100 tests with 15 essay questions each.

I, myself, gained a new appreciation for the book. Interestingly , all the events in the book were to have taken place over about four days, it seems. A number of kids explained their interest in the book as a curiosity with Holden himself: Did they like him or not? We had some pretty good discussions about Holden’s idea of ”a phony,” and whether Holden himself was a phony? Some kids were convinced that he was and that the whole theme of the book was not to grow up and be ”mature.” Apparently some of the ‘Cliff’s Notes’ and ’Spark Notes’ available on line, that some kids accessed too frequently, was pushing that interpretation. I kept suggesting other themes.

Holden is a gripping character, if you are at all prone to that kind of nonconformity. One evening I found myself in the grocery store thinking about ”the phony” standing in front of me. It made me laugh; that Holden, he is infectious.

I read —on line, of course— that JD Salinger carried a copy of the manuscript in his backpack as he fought at Normandy in WWII. You know, he never did sell the rights for a movie, even when Leonardo DiCaprio wanted to play Holden. According to someone who sought to have the book banned from public schools, Holden says ”goddam” 435 times. But I did a little censoring myself, I skip over chapter 19 (but it was still there for anyone who wanted to read it) because there is some homophobia there and a little elsewhere. That topic also led to a decent discussion with some of the groups about how times had changed.

The Pandemic also is worth mentioning. It greatly complicated the teaching. Early on we had 5 and 10 kids absent in each class and for 10 days at a time. Kids would get sick and I would get a call from the principal’s office asking who had sat near them earlier that day or the previous day. Many of those kids would then be quarantined. I had to keep accurate seating charts, space desks out, and keep kids from congregating unnecessarily. Due dates tended to disappear because I couldn’t keep track of who was out and when, and I didn’t even try. Masks were optional but a fair number wore them.

There were discussions about getting vaccinated or not and some kids had the craziest ideas. I, and most teachers, got vaxxed up real quick. A fair number of kids did also, when it became available to them. The quarantine regimen eventually changed and number of infections slowed, and attendance picked back up. Curiously that created a new problem. These juniors had not yet had a single undisrupted, normal, year of high school. As the room filled back up behaviors started to change. Some of those kids were out of practice at being students. That is the point at which my time was done; the teacher came back from maternity leave. Good luck to her and to so many of those wonderful young people I met. To even some of those that weren’t so pleasant to teach, it was hard to say good bye!

Why did Holden keep asking the cabbies what happened to the ducks in Central Park when winter came? Answer: Because he was a little concerned about what he would do next, too.

Tomorrow a follow-up post on THE OTHER ADVENTURE I HAVE EMBARKED UPON that slowed my Blogging————————————————————————POLITICS!!!————————————————

Making all the Connections at the NatureReligionConnection.org

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