In a previous post, I had written about using Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” with my creative writing class and their reactions to it. A friend of ours, Jennifer, is a long time high school English teacher in Connecticut. She had written a long response to my post stating how she loves the story and uses it with her classes.
Her e-mail ended with “I will say that I had a great experience with them with “The Catcher in the Rye” this year, but in recent years, appreciation for that story has waned – kids aren’t so patient with Holden and his issues. They’re used to lots of mental health services available at school, of course!”
This caused me to erupt in simultaneous, yet diametrically opposed sensations of horror and humor. Jennifer uses “The Catcher in the Rye” with her AP class. In the US, many high schools offer Advanced Placement classes. These are particular classes for those who are a cut above the rest of the herd. These are college-level courses that a student can take while still in high school.
The emotional upheaval that this statement caused was an immediate regression to 7th grade English class. Back in the day at our schools, we have tracks. Throughout New Jersey 6th graders take standardized tests. Administration uses the scores to divide students into four tracks. I was in the S group, the brightest. I think I was the only one in this group who had never had a Bar Mitzvah, a Bat Mitzvah or knew what the inside of a synagogue looked like. The bright side was that during certain holidays, I was the only one in class. I swear I didn’t cheat when taking the exams the year before, but how I ended up with this crowd was beyond me.
With this in mind, our 7th grade English teacher, Mrs. Shatner had suggested there may be some books that we want to read, but she couldn’t assign them. One of the titles was “The Catcher in the Rye”. She never divulged her restrictions and let it drop. Being an avid reader, I made notes of all the titles she suggested.
As luck would have it, I came down with bronchitis shortly after that class. Being bedbound, my mother announced she was going to the library and wanted to know if I wanted anything. Of course, I suggested “The Catcher in the Rye”. I had completely exhausted the children’s library by the time I had reached 5th grade, so the librarians awarded me with an adult library card prematurely. Due to this, my mother never thought twice about my request.
When she returned, she handed the book over along with four others. Once I started “The Catcher in the Rye”, I devoured it. It was the first time I had encountered four letter nasty words that start with ‘f’ and I don’t mean fink, fags or fart. I knew, I knew, I knew that my mother had not cracked open the binding of the book, because if she did, it would never have made its way to my bedroom. Each time I heard her coming near my room, I hid the book, grabbing another to throw her off.
When I finished the book, I left it on the bottom of the pile of the other books I had finished that needed to go back to the library. All was well! Those moments of false hope are really the ones that come bite you in the butt.
My mother returned home with steam coming from her nose. If I had not been sick in bed, I would have been sick in traction after she finished with me. She had thumbed through the book before handing it over. She could not help but see the same words that I found so titillating, but she found horrifying. She demanded to know where I had heard of that book title. When I told her she immediately headed for the phone to call the principal to report the teacher. I begged her not to as I was already a minority member and pariah. She promised she would not call.
My first English class after recovering, Mrs. Shatner made a point of informing the class that “someone’s mother called the principal to complain about extracurricular reading” as she glared at me with flames igniting from her eyes. If I had been old enough, I would have quit school then and there.
From that day on and through junior high school, I loved Mrs. Shatner for not abusing my report card in retaliation for my mother’s sins.