Friday, January 29, 2010

For Those of Us Standing Stone-Like at Midnight

The news yesterday afternoon that J.D. Salinger had died made me think immediately of Alice McMullen. A lifetime ago when I was a boy - a period marked for historical reference by the complete absence of gray hair atop my head and/or in my beard - I was among a generation of kids who counted ourselves among the fortunate. We were fortunate in that at some point or another when we were in high school at W-H, we found ourselves in Alice McMullen's English class.

Memory not being now what it once was (whether the residue of too much alcohol or too many years I shall leave to others to decide) I cannot recall specifically what year we were in school when we were entrusted to Mrs. McMullen's care for English. I know that it was not twelfth grade (Mr. Paoli's A.P. class occupied the "English" space on the dance card) and I do not think we were only freshmen. For some inexplicable reason I can still hear ASIA's "Heat of The Moment" emanating from a classmate's Walkman while waiting for class to start one day. In '82 we found ourselves either ending 9th grade (Spring) or starting 10th (Fall).

Mrs. McMullen was an exceptionally fine English teacher - rock-solid strong in the fundamentals of grammar and an enthusiastic fan of American literature. Her syllabus was comprised of any number of top-shelf works, which she required us to read but genuinely hoped we would enjoy. As one of my friends learned in a most unfortunate manner after opting out of reading a work he did not apparently find particularly enjoyable, one could not circumvent Alice's commandment (Thou Shalt Not Fail to Read the Book) by seeking Cliff's assistance. You see, while old Cliff was strong on the Note he was notoriously weak on the quote. Thus when Mrs. McMullen elected to make the test on Herman Melville's "Billy Budd" a quote test, poor Coop's immediate future was about as bright as Billy's had been when he was affixed to the yardarm for hanging. In retrospect, when one opts to read the "highlights" of a book that is but 132 pages long in its unabridged form, one kinda sorta deserves whatever one gets. I had never seen a grade of "Maris" on any test that did not have my name written on it....until the day Mrs. McMullen returned our graded Billy Budd tests to us and she gave his to him.

It seemed to me then - as it does now a quarter century or more later - that the tone of Catcher in the Rye was not in lockstep with the way in which Mrs. McMullen lived her life. She was not edgy by any acceptable definition of the term. She did have her little rebellions - such as an animosity towards squirrels that would have given either Boris or Natasha pause; which she used to report to us with a devilish glee manifested itself in her efforts to run over with her car any squirrel that crossed her path (or attempted to cross against the light). Yet whether Salinger's work was her personal preference made no difference. It was an important piece of American literature and she afforded us the opportunity to read it. And both while we were reading it and then upon our completion of it she not only permitted but encouraged free-wheeling discussion of it. She did not simply monitor our discussions of it but participated in them as well; contributing her own thoughts without attempting to stifle ours. Hers was one interpretation - not a right or wrong one. Simply a personal one.

I am embarrassed to admit that not every "great work" we were assigned to read either warmed the cockles of my heart or fired up the neurons in my brain. My hair still hurts upon the mere mention of Henry David Thoreau's name. But Catcher in the Rye most certainly did. I recall reading it several more times when I was a much younger fellow than I am now.

A lot of stuff gets piled on kids when we (and they) are kids; too young to have the freedom to do what they want to do (and too young to realize that for most of us that limitless freedom is grounded more in fantasy than reality) as opposed to what they are required to do. As a child we are dependent upon the adults around us to not only shape us and to guide us but, critically, to afford us the opportunity to flex our muscles intellectually and mentally. We cannot grow in a vacuum and we cannot grow without nourishment. A good teacher is as important - and sometimes more important - to that growth as a parent.

Mr. Salinger lived to be a very old man; far older than the protagonist of his most famous work was when we encountered him in Catcher. Yesterday much was written and broadcast about his notorious aversion to - and dislike of - fame. He shunned his notoriety as best as he could and the postmortems were as full of references to him as a recluse as they were to his work. And it seemed to my admittedly unsophisticated ear and eye as if the undercurrent in many of them was one of annoyance - if not anger. A none-too-subtle,"How dare he have lived his life as he did?" As if the author was angry that Salinger never permitted anyone else to have a say in something that never was anyone else's business anyway.

Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody. Even while hiding in the clouded warmth of the crowd.

-AK

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