In a recent post on Slate, fellow English teacher Jessica Roake bemoans how much her students hated reading Catcher in the Rye, even though she desperately wanted them to like it. The story “is no longer a book for cool high school students,” she sniffs. “For most teenagers, an authority figure’s approval is the kiss of death.”
Having just finished Catcher with my ninth graders, I have to disagree with the idea that literature taught in school needs to be “cool” or current — and that kids won’t like what adults like.
I hated Catcher in high school, but loved it when I read it again as a teacher who’s seen her share of sarcastic, funny, and troubled teens. Many of my students engaged with the story, too.
We giggled every time Holden claims he’s “suave as hell” with the ladies, and read his “goddam”s aloud with aplomb, along with his many other “cusses” (9th grader diction, no lie).
We considered the much-discussed symbols in the story in ways that sometimes drifted into amusing absurdity:
(Possible sequels for the book: “Pitcher in the Wheat,” and “Shortstop in the Soy,” anyone?)
What the kids seemed to enjoy most, though, was discussing whether Holden was a typical teen or a mentally disturbed individual. We used a “chalk talk” (great strategy I picked up in a wonderful theater class):
Quite a few students showed surprising self-awareness and self-deprecation, noting that the typical teen experiences “Extreme Hormonal Mood Fluctuation,” and “Aren’t most teens somewhat mentally disturbed?”
They also commented on Holden’s sexual hormones, and I got to say “horny” in class for the first time:
My favorite comment though, may have been the rational rebuttal to what all the “cool” kids are saying these days:
(You Only Live Once, but You Only Die Once, too.)
In short: don’t underestimate teenagers’ abilities to connect with classic literature.