I reread ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ for the umpteenth time recently. I teach the novel to senior pupils -16/17 year-olds – but still read it for pleasure just the same. And it never fails to hit the mark. Thirty-odd years after reading it for the first time it still haunts me when, at the end of the novel, Holden sits, watching his sister go round on the Carrousel, and contemplates his future. He doesn’t have a clue what’s about to hit him. It’s why, unless you read it at that point in your life, it never makes any sense; but, if like me you did, it hits the mark every time.
I get why people don’t like the book. It’s at times a rambling narrative of a confused, yet spoiled, teenager, who’s never really had to worry about wealth or status. He has had it easy. Oh, apart from his brother dying. Apart from that. Apart from his belief that everything he’d ever known was disappearing as he left school behind and was being catapulted into an adulthood which terrifies him. Apart from that. But I get that, if you didn’t read it when it would have had most impact, it perhaps doesn’t mean as much to you. Holden is every teenager on the verge of leaving school and, for me, personifies everything that literature can give us.
Holden believes that every adult he meets is a phony and you can understand why. Teenagers on the verge of leaving school are sold a vision of life which could only every be an imaginary one to them. Our school systems, despite our idealistic beliefs, wrangle them through an exam system which will always have winners and losers. Even with a certificate with lots of good news, how can they possibly know which one they’ll be? But, for me, it is Salinger’s beautiful prose which cries out with teenage confusion and anguish which sings to me. Holden’s revelation to Phoebe of the title’s significance is heart-breaking; his inability to understand what he is going through, profoundly relevant.
However, when Holden crosses the road, worrying that he might fall and disappear, Salinger had hit on a feeling that sixteen and seventeen year olds genuinely experience at the end of their schools days. They have been fed a line for thirteen years and are coming to the end of the one constant factor in their lives. Everything they’ve ever known is about to, in their eyes, disappear, and they have no idea what is on the other side of the road. Perhaps as educators we forget that, for them, qualifications are only the first part of a long process.
Holden is messed up for a number of reasons. Perhaps kids get disillusioned with the line we feed them because they see that exam results are more for us than for them; that schools barely disguise the fact that good exam results are important because they make the establishment look good, more than the pupils. And, in that sense, Holden was right. We are all phonies. If we have created a system where, as teachers, we worry that our exam results are primarily a reflection on us, then we are phonies, no matter the reason. Our system is flawed if that is the case. Our new exam system in Scotland doesn’t seen to be changing that. We will still have young adults who are terrified that they’ll disappear; and they’re probably right.