Judge me if you will, but The Catcher in the Rye remains one of my favourite reads. And of the many memorable episodes in the novel, the one that I am reminded of often as a teacher is one where Holden Caulfield, the teenaged narrator, is shocked to see the words “fuck you” written on the walls of his sister’s school and tries to remove them.
“But while I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody had written ‘Fuck you’ on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought how Phoebe and all other little kids would see it and how they’d wonder what the hell it meant, and finally some dirty kid would tell them—all cockeyed naturally—what it meant, and how they’d all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days. I kept wanting to kill whoever’d written it…But I rubbed it out anyway, finally.
….I went down by a different staircase, and I saw another ‘Fuck you’ on the wall. I tried to rub it off with my hand again, but this one was scratched on, with a knife or something. It wouldn’t come off. It’s hopeless, anyway. If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘Fuck you’ signs in the world. It’s impossible.”
At the risk of being accused of intentional fallacy, I will say that a literary work must be judged on the sincerity of its endeavour to reflect life as it is. The value of any work of literature is also measured by its durability and currency.
And on both counts, The Catcher in the Rye triumphs brilliantly. While it may not be most sublime piece of literature (some may even call it “trashy”), to me, it seems to be one of the most sincere attempts to capture the angst of directionless youth. And as a teacher, I am often left to marvel at its current relevance even after half a century of its first publication.
In at least two of the five classes that I teach at my school, I see the F-word engraved on the desks. Does it bother me? No. Does it amuse me? Immensely! I am most certain (unfortunately) that hardly any of these students have read The Catcher in the Rye. So their act is not in any way inspired but, most likely, instinctive. And every time I realize this upon entering the class, I mentally tip off a hat to J.D. Salinger, the author of The Catcher in the Rye, and smile.
Last week I was in the audience of a high-profile annual inter-school debate. Some of the most celebrated schools of the NCR region participated in the event. Among some 50-odd speakers that debated the issue of Uniform Civil Code, the one I distinctly remember was a feisty, cheeky boy who championed enforcement of the UCC. His speech, however, raised many eyebrows, for he spoke, what some would call irreverently, but what I would say rationally, about religion. To aggravate the discomfiture of the jury, teachers and (to my surprise) even the students, so passionately did he feel about the subject that he ended up using the F-word in his speech. A wave of shock and disbelief swept through the auditorium. While some students around me exchanged knowing smiles and tried to suppress their giggles, the others who were participating gloated in the knowledge that he was out of the race — one less challenger.
I must confess I enjoyed his speech. Maybe his language was unparliamentary or “trashy”, but, like The Catcher in the Rye, the content and intent were truly heart-felt. But as I turned around, with a broad grin on my face, I saw a gentleman sitting behind me going purple with embarrassment, trying to hide his face. Later I learnt that he was the teacher accompanying this young boy. Everybody looked at the boy with reproachful eyes as he got off the dais and walked back to his chair. He was a scandal!
Of course, everyone knew the chap was disqualified. However, one of the jury members, in the ceremonial address to the audience, did bring up this issue. He said he was shocked to hear a participant use such language and that his deploying such a word here meant that he used it frequently elsewhere too and that was highly unacceptable.
The astuteness of Salinger lies in making Holden realise that he can’t rub away even half the “fuck you” signs in the world even if he had a million years to do so. Holden realizes, almost bitterly, that he cannot preserve the cherubic innocence that he wished to preserve in children.
I found the denial-ism of the judge even more shocking than the use of the F-word by this 15-year-old boy. If the judge was under the impression that the other students did not use the F-word just because they did not use pepper it in their speeches, I daresay he was hugely mistaken. We as educators cannot turn blind to the reality, however unsavoury.
Perhaps we don’t realize that the act of engraving or writing “fuck you” on the desk is the first act of protest against the system. I don’t think the students use it literally, and even if they do, it’s a sign of their sexual awakening; it’s not as if some “perverty bum sneaked in the school late at night” and wrote those words. We will have to stop thinking of children as angelic, prelapsarian beings who need to be protected against corruption. Even if the intent is noble, realizing it is highly impracticable. All we can do is to try to instil in them a sense of discretion. If anything, we should use moments such as these to educate them without making villains out of them. I wonder when this epiphany will occur to our educators and policy-makers.