Judge me if you will, but The Catcher in the Rye remains one of my most 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 “F*** 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 “F*** you” on the wall.
It drove me damn near crazy.
I thought of how Phoebe and all the 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.
The Power of a Word, Engraved on Desks
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 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 (and now a school teacher), I am often left to marvel at its current relevance even half a century after 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! What is uncanny is that (unfortunately) I am most certain 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 realise this upon entering the class, I mentally bow down to J.D. Salinger, the author of The Catcher in the Rye, and smile.
How the F-Word Still Creates Ripples
Last week I was in the audience of a high-profile annual inter-school debate. Among some 50-odd speakers that debated the issue of Uniform Civil Code, the one I distinctly remember was a feisty boy who championed enforcement of 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 he felt 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 its language was unparliamentary or ‘trashy’, but, like The Catcher in the Rye, the content and intent was 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 the scandal!
The Writing of ‘F*** You’ as a Sign of Protest...
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 using such a word here meant that he used it frequently elsewhere too and that is highly unacceptable.
The astuteness of Salinger lies in making Holden realise that he can’t rub away even half the “F*** you” signs in the world even if he had a million years to do so. Holden realises, 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 young 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 it in their speeches, I daresay he was hugely mistaken. We as educators cannot turn a blind eye to reality, however unsavoury.
Perhaps we don’t realise that the act of engraving or writing “F*** 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 beings who need to be protected against corruption. 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.
(Yash Raj Goswami is a teacher and a freelance writer.)
(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)