Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day J.D.

Three Holden Caulfield quotes from J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye:

“I don’t know what I was running for – I guess I just felt like it.”

“People never notice anything.”

“You know that song, ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’?...”

I love short story units for freshman and sophomore year. Juniors and seniors have their minds preoccupied with too much of the adult world. All that college essay, S.A.T., picking a major that just sucks the life out of them like not believing in Neverland or Santa Claus anymore, but 9th and 10th graders will still listen to a well crafted story with awe and reverence, just sitting on pins and needles letting themselves be open to the twists and turns of characters and that just kills me. It just kills me to this day. There is nothing like reading aloud to a class full of students. Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Hemmingway’s “The Killers,” Carver’s “Cathedral,” Chopin’s “The Awakening,” Maupassant’s “The Necklace,” Joyce’s “Araby,” O’Conner’s “Wise Blood.” The list just is endless.
But my favorite short story, I mean hands down my favorite short story to read to students of all time is Salinger’s “Perfect Day for Bananafish.” I don’t say a word, just wait for them to come in and take their seats, and then I pull up a chair to the front of the room, I don’t even say ‘hello’ I just start reading the pages in front of them, just jumping into the story. It’s such a kick.
It has all the Salinger elements: the witty kid, the backlash against elitism, east coast slumming, sarcasm and disillusionment. It’s perfect for a bunch of kids who act all phony like they believe in nothing but so desperately want to hold on to something, anything that is real and true. So in the end, when the main character comes back into the hotel room, looks at his fiancé laying on the bed, and then picks up a gun and shoots himself in the head, I mean, it’s as if a bomb has gone off in the classroom itself. The kids are just stunned.
Pin drop silence.
Wait for it. Wait for it.
Then the eventual, “Hartenstein… why would you read that story to us? Why would you put us through that? That story is TERRRRRRR-IBBBBBLLLLLLEEEEEE!”
My heart is just racing. I mean, it is going like one-hundred and sixty beats a second. It is like I am in sprint with every kid in the room, and we all think we are the fastest and the best and nobody is going to give in without a fight. Yes, it is exactly like that. I am racing. I want so much to tell them what the story means, to give them the truth, to have it make sense, but I have to wait. I have to let them come to it on their own. I have to stand in the middle of the room and let my heart race as the kids try to figure it out. I pace. I stay quiet. I let their wheels spin. It is the hardest part of my job because I love the stories more than anyone. I love their meaning more than anyone, and I want them to love literature too. So I have to just let my heart race and try to be calm.
“It is absurd.”
“It is morbid.”
“Are you sure we should be reading these kinds of stories.”
“I’m going to tell my parents.”
“I think I’ve been placed in the wrong class.”
“Last year when my mom homeschooled us we were reading Romona Quimby…”
It’s then I let them have it.
“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is not about suicide. It is not a story about a young man shooting himself in a moment of weakness. It is a tale about the bravery of original thought. The man is protesting everything around him, rejecting the life he has come back home to find. He is choosing life. The bullet is symbolic of how one single idea can blow our minds. How we can explode our brains with creativity and individual expression and revolution against conformity. It is about the power of mental penetration and how narrow the gap is between genius and madness and living a perfect life.
The kids just look at me like I am crazy, like they won’t trust a word I say for the rest of the year. I love it. Literature just rocked them out of their seats. A story just brought them to their knees. It’s the reason for everything I do in the classroom. This is the payoff. This is my trigger, my bullet, and it’s a perfect day for it.
So why am I writing about this? Well, about a week ago J.D. Salinger died, and I loved him. I mean, I carried a copy of Catcher in the Rye to Taiwan with me, an old copy I’d been making notes in over the years. I was going to mail it as a letter to a friend. How cool would that be? To just receive Holden Caulfield in the mail with all these passages underlined. I think that’s the message of that book, how we have to take care of each other when we are running blind. When we are trying to help others so much and our hearts are so full of love that we can’t see ourselves anymore or know that we are falling off cliffs, into madness, Holden’s madness.
So this Valentine’s Day, when everyone in the world turns to red hearts and flowers and chocolates, I was thinking about how this one man changed my life. How this reclusive hermit wrote this beautiful book that changed how I think and how I would never be able to say thanks or meet him or just smile in his direction, and from what I have read about Salinger, believe me, enough people have tried over the years to do the same. But it should be said out loud, nonetheless. When someone changes your life, you’ve got to let them know.
So Happy Valentine’s Day J.D. Salinger It’s a perfect day to say that too.

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