There are some headlines with are so ingrained in our psyche that their impact never really leaves us. There are moments in history which become iconic in all of our lives. As a fourteen year old boy, reluctantly completing a paper round I hated, I could never have imagined that that moment would never leave me. John Lennon was dead. Ten minutes later, I was lying face down in the road, knocked down by a Ford Fiesta. The bruises healed quickly – there was no more damage than that – but Lennon’s death would leave a longer lasting mark. A mark which I’ve come to love.
(c) Harry Benson
On my classroom door I have a photograph of Mark Chapman’s hands holding a copy of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’. One of those hands pulled the trigger which killed John Lennon: his goal to catch Lennon from falling into phoniness and ordinariness. By committing this crime, he would be freezing Lennon forever, just as Holden Caulfield wanted to freeze his childhood in a moment in time. Lennon would never grow old, never decline. Never disappoint. I tell this story every year in my classroom as I teach the novel, from the explosion of the strange phenomenon called ‘teenager’ after the Second World War to my lying in a puddle in the early morning rain, all those years later.
That frozen moment in time came crashing back this week. While discussing the story of James Castle, the boy Holden remembers from school who jumped from a window after a systemic campaign of bullying from his peers, a student asked, ‘Does Holden see James Castle as some sort of hero, frozen in time, just like John Lennon?’ I’d never thought about it before but it was superbly insightful. Holden’s desire to retain his childhood memories is rooted in the loss of his brother, Allie. Allie is perfect. ‘You’d have really liked him.’ His death has afforded him the immortality Holden is striving for.
And, in that, there is a chilling reminder of the importance of reading literature. As I age, I become more and more aware of those frozen moments in time. Those incidents that make up our own histories begin to drift further and further away, like rootless flowers cast aside: the teacher failing disastrously on his first day; the teenager throwing his school bag into the bin as he leaves school for the last time; the child staring up at a circle of faces as he lay on the ground, crying.
Stealing John Lennon away from us is the crime for which Mark Chapman will forever be remembered. He was horribly wrong of course: horribly, tragically wrong. Who knows what Lennon might have achieved? But a book about a teenager who struggles to cope with growing up continues to teach me about the beauty and fragility of our lives and the importance of cherishing our loved ones and the time we have with them. It is a book far from frozen in time. Far from merely a book