I never warmed to Catcher in the Rye. I’m definitely among the category of kids who rankled against our assigned work, and my god, but the school system of Howard County, Maryland assigned some epics of dull American writing in my day. It’s funny, but I can reread some of those assignments now and think ah—I get it, and that’s quite a decent book, but there was this joylessness in repetition that just did me in. How many times can a teacher walk through Steinbeck and still be electrified by what he did well? How many times can you drone through the delights of Gatsby to distracted suburbanites and make it alive for them?
Catcher never came to me. Gatsby did, but only twenty-five years later, when I had lived long enough and hard enough that that final, crushing series of lines at the end became something I felt in the marrow of my bones.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
If you’d told me in the first of what would eventually be three successive sophomore years truncated neatly by my expulsion from school that it would one day become a comfort to me to drive nineteen miles to sit quietly on Fitzgerald’s grave, trace out the recesses of those engraved words, and remember, I’d have laughed at you, and said something arch and sarcastic. Back then, I was safe in the embrace of my family, protected from the future by pretense and ignorance, and isolated from things like death and failure.
I wish, in my way, that they taught things the way I taught myself, but I’m being a grotesque egotist to think it might be universal, I suppose. In my day, I dodged the assignments to read Bradbury instead, to work and rework well-trodden ways through huge, expository fictional dream worlds saturated with adjectives in florid, bleeding, syrupy clusters of wordlust. I shivered to the arch excesses of Lovecraft, and wrapped up tightly in my bed at night, imagining the mice skittering through the lathwork of my walls and his rats in the walls. I didn’t get Shakespeare, beyond the productions I saw played out on the satisfying tiny stage of the old Folger theater, and didn’t get the things that too many adult teachers cherish because they, too, had come to know the future, death, and failure.
By high school, it may well be too late, unless you had a teacher like I had had years before.
I’d been personally rescued from special education by one of the most important women I will ever know, Mrs. Noreen Brastow, of Hammond Elementary School, who watched me in the school library long before I was meant to be in her grade and paid notice as I was put into special ed as a clumsy mid-seventies way of dealing with my learning disability and my relationship with an abusive teacher, brewing on the sidelines until she couldn’t take it anymore, storming into my classroom in the apex where Pod B and Pod C met at the science room and bringing me into her class for the rest of the semester a grade early.
Pod C, in the parlance of our miserably engineered modern “open space” schools of the seventies, was the final destination in elementary school, and a clangorous hangar of distraction made perfect by the inclusion of three boisterous classes with no divisions beyond the low, orange-furred movable partitions that loosely marked out our home territories. Three teachers taught against the background roar of ninety simultaneous voices and the exposed overhead ductwork, and in that Pod, the demoralization of forces formed the majority view.
Mrs. Brastow, on the other hand, was still alive and electric—more Sook than Ben Stein—and she shared that magical interest with the thrilling enthusiasm of a combined Mrs Who, Which, and Whatsit. She read to us, not because it was in the curriculum, but because it was right, and would accelerate the rote portions of the class to allow space to tell us a story in a chapter each day.
She read us The Yearling over the course of a year, and it was the perfect book for the perfect year, a volume appropriate to our age, but which didn’t shy away from the devastating wealth of human experience, and when I cried, I didn’t have to hide my face, because we all did, watched from across the Pod by the less-lucky classes.
“Y’all were crying today,” sneered the squinty young provocateur, Joey Decker, clearly pointing out that our class had been seen red-faced by the other two classes as we made our way to the cafeteria.
“He shot Flag,” said Sarah Morris, wiping away a fresh tear. “You wouldn’t understand.” I always had a crush on that girl, never more so than that moment.
“Yeah, I understand a class of crybabies.”
At forty-four, I understand Joey Decker, too.
In high school, there’s too often a misunderstanding of our maturity, coupled with the committeethink standardization of what constitutes great literature, and so they toss us into this sea of good and bad work, armed with not nearly enough experience to grasp some of it, and too much of it to not be cynical about the rest. You can get something from Of Mice and Men over a broad range of age and experience if it’s taught right, but give a teacher the arch dryness of Shakespeare’s “funny” writing and it’s all just words, hanging in space, full of sound and fury and signifying not a fucking thing to some teenager caught up in the struggle for second base.
If the groundwork is there, kids don’t need to be forced to read, making that sorrowful Pavlovian connection between reading and the march to Gulag.
In the first grade, my teacher called home repeatedly.
“Mrs. Wall, Joseph has read beyond the assigned section of his language arts book again. I’ve gone as far as rubber-banding off the rest of the book, and he’s clearly removed the rubber band and read the next section. He thinks I don’t know that he’s removed and replaced the rubber band, but I know.”
“What’s wrong with him reading ahead?”
“We have to work at the same pace in these classes. It doesn’t do us any good for some of our students to leapfrog ahead of the rest of the class.”
If you had had this wretched, mean-spirited woman as your teacher, you’d understand. Class was boring, empty, and ritualistic. The rubber band, on the other hand, was the boundary between now and the mysteries of the future. In retrospect, I plead guilty, Mrs. Marcellus, but I have thirty-eight years of experience under my belt since then, and you were wrong.
By high school, my dogged, frustrating resistance had beaten down some of my teachers and they shook their heads and said, “Okay, Ford [I was known as “Ford” for my first year of high school in a clever attempt to redefine my uncoolness by embracing my fanatical love of Adams], I gather that you don’t want to read the assigned book, so why don’t you pick out a book for this report and do that one instead. I will insist, in exchange, that you present yours for the class, so you can make a case for reading outside the assigned list of books.”
I read, I reread, I scribbled notes in the margins, frantically assembled my thoughts and impressions, sat for one long, long weekend at the keys of my Royal Royalite portable manual typewriter with a genuine leatherette carrying case and tassels on the zipper pulls and turned my drafts into a final case for the wonders of the book I selected, which I’d found in my older sister’s room and adopted based on the titillating promise of its title. I tucked four pages of erasable linen typewriter bond with a watermark into my doodle-encrusted canvas binder, caught the bus in, and sat there like a cobra waiting to strike.
“Mr. Wall, would you like to give your report now?”
I was following Karen Wassman’s less-than-engaging take on Johnny Tremain, so I was pretty sure I was golden, and that my report could well change the world.
“Yes, Mrs. Beurlen,” I said, and walked to the front of the class. “The book I have selected for my report is Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs.”
Her drawn-in eyebrows went up, then down, and she mumbled, “Oh, for Christ’s sake” just loud enough for me to hear. I went into the concept of the cut-up, the background of Burroughs, complete with the lurid tale of what happened to his wife, and some of the history of the publication of the book.
“If I might read a passage here—” I started, and was about to read a bit about two boys under a train trestle that would have almost certainly have shut the school down for the rest of the day, but Mrs. Beurlen stopped me, thanked me for my work, and asked me to return to my seat.
When the report came back, it was marked with an A, as well as a little note that said “Perhaps we should reconsider the assigned reading list for the next one,” coupled with a desperate little smiley face. I followed that advice, but never got another A until I put myself through college.
If my high school reading had been the main effort of getting me to read, I would be a different person today, and the problems that sent me to special ed in the third grade would by now have put me in a very, very different place. Instead, I had a teacher early enough who caught me at exactly the right time, and who made me cry in a way so much harder than our legions of overprotective adults will ever allow now.
Jody shot Flag. I—
“Mrs. Brastow, I said. I don’t like that he did that. That’s not how it’s supposed to go. Why did the author make us love Flag if that was going to happen?”
“Oh, Joe—too much of life is not how it’s supposed to go, but we can’t hide from that.”
Except now, I do.
And one fine morning—
© 2012 Joe Belknap Wall
What I write will always be dedicated to my family and my friends, but if it weren’t for Noreen Brastow, I probably never would have started to write in the first place.
Requiescat In Pace, Noreen Brastow – 12/07/1926 -09/01/2007