At the end of another school year, let us
acknowledge the nobility of educators.
Teachers are our catchers in the rye.
When I first starting teaching 12 years ago, I was sure I had set out on a path to save the world through literature and writing. Although I met a lot of great students my first couple of years teaching 7th Grade at a public middle school, there were a few students – and their stories – that smashed my romantic ideals and ground them into the macadam making up the rest of the road I chose to travel.
One student had lived in a car for half a year before he lived in a foster home. And then another. That’s when I met him. He couldn’t sit still too long. Threadbare clothes, dust in his rows. On Find-a-Poem Fridays, he brought rap lyrics and spit them like he was on stage shining with bling. He was gone to Chicago by spring.
Another student had no father and kept video recordings of his own video game playing. He also made videos of his iguana. I gave him strips of Velcro, then a handful of magnets, and then a tennis ball, but nothing seemed to regulate him. On meds, he was a zombie. Years later he contacted me. He boasted a swastika tattoo on his pale chest. Despite my being a Jew, he said, I was still his favorite teacher. We didn’t stay in touch.
“It wasn’t for you, Mr. K,” another one said. “This dude was trying me. I’m not going to do that again, though.” He was arrested at the bus stop on the way to school with a handgun in his backpack. After a few months, he was back in my class, wearing an ankle bracelet, and doodling Goku and Gohan from Dragon Ball Z in the margins, as he had always done.
She came in spilling her purse and finding that hilarious. Loose neck, drooped shoulders, splayed on her knees picking up coins, a pack of Marlboro Lights, lipstick, lollipops, and a trio of Trojans and stuffing them haphazardly back in. She’d found a little white pill, held it up before her eyes, staggered to her feet and said, “Look, Mr. K, ecstasy!” She then placed it on the back of her tongue and swallowed. Half the class had known her since kindergarten. Everyone knew she’d been caught with three boys in the boys’ bathroom. It could have been any one of them or someone else that fathered the baby she was carrying the next summer.
These are just four students out of the almost 160 I taught that year, students who I tried to get through to, with literature and writing, through discussion, and through drilling grammar lessons too – teaching the essentials of communication, giving them tools with which to better give language to their needs, desires, beliefs, experiences, knowledge, and curiosities.
There are many other stories, some as disheartening, some more so. And there are plenty of wonderful stories, as well, of brilliant 7th graders who gave all they had to get all they could from everything I could give in that classroom. Often I succeeded. Often I failed. Students are not widgets. Teachers are not assembly line workers. Every student, every child, needs something. And just like everyone else, they are also fighting something.
More than teaching skills, assigning drills, and inspiring critical thinking, teachers must be bastions of patience, mainstays of hope, upholders of truth, and defenders of the faith that learning is for everyone and that it is a lifelong process.
Teachers are the faithful Jedi protecting the realm of childhood from the idea that the whole purpose of your education is a job. At the same time, teachers are the town criers declaring for all to hear that you need an education to get a job. And we have to be real about it, or the kids will see right through us.
Teachers, in other words, must be catchers in the rye:
“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.” (Catcher in the Rye, pg. 173)
This passage about Holden’s dream can be analyzed any number of ways. A basic tenant of teaching literature of any kind is that we all bring our personal experiences into our reading.
The significance of the dream to Holden can be described as symbolic for his love of innocence, his desire to protect children from falling into the cynicism and phoniness of adulthood.
Fine. I’m betting there are other ways to see it in accordance with Holden’s motivations or your own.
After less than two years of teaching, I had already started to see this dream as a description of teaching. When asked by a sociologist doing a study at that school for an analogy that could describe my experience, I told her about Holden’s dream.
After 12 years of teaching now in vastly different environments, I still see it that way. Through discussions in education classes and the teachers’ lounge, I believe many teachers would agree.
In the best possible situation, the classroom is a sanctuary of learning, a golden field of rye where kids should feel safe, where lessons are like games where, win or lose, the experience is the true instructor. The adult in the room is the educator. The pointer to doors. The keeper of the faith. The one who wants the learning to go on and on without fear.
Get too close to the cliff, and we’ll be there to catch you, set you aright, and then get back to our post, roving the rye with an eye for triumphs and travails, keeping our arms wide so that no one should fall before their time. Meanwhile, our students will be free to discover, build skills, and practice critical thinking in a professional, goals oriented, and positive atmosphere.
Missing from Holden’s dream are the holes and rocks hidden by the rye, traps to trip up students and educators alike – troubled homes, bureaucratic administrations rendered ineffective by ego or rote fear and trepidation, drugs and violence, the billions and billions spent to convince us all to spend our way to a life of entertainment. And so much more. Point the finger where we will, just as long as we also point at ourselves.
All too often, they will fall before their time. Now and then we miss. While we’re with one, another goes over the edge, sometimes giving us the finger as they dive.
Eventually, ready or not, they will all fall. They must.
This falling is how they/we grow. What Holden feared, we fear as well, but as the grownups in the room we must embrace this truth. And teach it.
Robert Frost so succinctly wrote it this way: “So Eden sank to grief, so dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay.”
And now in the summer season, even the rye must be reaped so that we can start anew in the fall.