If I were to hop back through time exactly fifteen years, I might find myself sitting in John Shafer’s English classroom. I imagine a full class—Shafer’s generally were—with a couple dozen high school juniors: athletes dressed for game day, the popular looking enviably presentable, the studious with notebooks out, and a motley remainder eluding easy stereotypes. Regardless of appearances, most of us would’ve had our eyes on Shafer. He knew how to connect with his students, and we loved him for it.
The only book I can remember reading in Shafer’s class was The Catcher in the Rye. I enjoyed it in the passive, self-absorbed way I suppose most teens do: Holden feels lousy; I feel lousy, too! It was, as cultural commentator Louis Menand suggested, “the literary equivalent of looking in a mirror for the first time.”
Shafer passed away in 2010 after a brave battle with pancreatic cancer. I saw a class-sized stack of Catcher in a bookstore a year later and couldn’t resist buying a copy. I thought of Shafer a lot while re-reading the book last month. What did he see in Holden? If I’d asked (or even contemplated) the question years ago, I couldn’t remember an answer.
As a teenager, I was drawn to Holden’s voice: what he says and how he says it. Fifteen years later, I’m more interested in what he doesn’t say. Holden lets us know how he feels about cliques, movies, lawyers, bros, being bourgeois, and many other things outside his control; the one area where he isn’t honest is his own unhappiness. His war against phoniness now seems tiresome, but his underlying loss is enormous, and the book is so much more interesting when we understand this.
On that first read back in Shafer’s class, I couldn’t put down the mirror long enough to make that connection. I’m glad I got a second chance to read between the lines and summon empathy for a character who, on the surface, isn’t much like me at all. I’m also glad for Shafer, who demonstrated time and again that stories are more interesting when we look beyond our own reflections, and that empathy is the mark of a great reader—whether our assignment rests in fiction or in life.
[ September 2014 ]