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Introduce children to themes of hope and creativity

June 03, 2005|by Lisa Tedrick Prejean

I've been considering recent discussions on the value of teens reading "The Catcher in the Rye" in Washington County classrooms.

It has been about 20 years since I read the book, so I picked it up again last weekend.

When I was a teen, "Catcher" wasn't required reading, but I had heard the controversy surrounding the book and that made me want to read it.

When adults over-react, express fear or try to be controlling, there's one main result: Kids become extremely curious. They want to know what the fuss is all about.

There's some innate desire for forbidden fruit that we all harbor in our souls.

So, at 17, I asked my mom if I could read "The Catcher in the Rye."

It was difficult initially to remember how I reacted to the book as a teen, but as I turned the pages last weekend, it slowly came back to me: Here's a boy, Holden, who's spoiled and selfish. He has no plans. He sees no hope for his future.

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I didn't have that outlook as a teen, so I could not relate to Holden, then or now. I didn't fault the author, J.D. Salinger, for wanting to create such a character. I just quickly became bored with the book - then and now. Then, because I wondered why so many people were talking about the book. Now, because I think I understand why so many people are talking about the book.

Most people who object to using "Catcher" in a classroom point to its adult themes and profanity.

The profanity is frequent, intense, alarming, offensive. In fact, the book is somewhat difficult to read for that very reason. I found myself re-reading certain passages so I could understand what point, if any, Salinger was trying to make.

Do I object to the profanity for moral or religious reasons? Yes. Those words are not used in my household, and my students aren't allowed to use profanity in the classroom.

It would cause my consistency to be questioned if I encouraged students to read what they cannot say. I also like to read books orally with my students. Wouldn't that pose an uncomfortable situation for most of us?

My objection to the profanity and adult themes extends to another level, however. When I observe a person whose speech is peppered with profanity, I see bitterness and anger. I wonder if the word choice is due to a lack of vocabulary. Also, a person who constantly finds fault with others and the world around him but does nothing to facilitate change is one to be pitied, not studied.

Will I allow my son to read the book when he becomes a teen? If he wants to, yes, on the condition that he talks with me or his father about questionable content. This type of discussion should be parent-directed, not teacher-directed.

In the classroom, let's introduce teens to themes that will foster their creativity, not give them a feeling of despair. It all goes back to what kind of characters we want to introduce to our young people. Why not have them read narrative accounts of inspiring historical figures?

Why are we spending precious classroom time and taxpayer money considering themes that teenagers can think of on their own or are exposed to in pop culture? Why shouldn't we as educators be the ones who inspire our children to greater heights?

In an uncertain world, teens need to read about people like themselves who are making a difference. The shock factor of Salinger's book has faded since the time it was written, more than 50 years ago. Today, the questionable things in Salinger's book are available on the Internet, on television or while waiting for a light to change.

In some classrooms, teachers are asking teens whether they think it is still relevant to teach from Salinger's book. There are complete lesson plans on this approach available on many Web sites.

Who's in charge here? The adults or the teenagers?

It's interesting that the 2005 Newbery Medal winner, "Kira-Kira" by Cynthia Kadohata, is a story about a girl's journey through a childhood punctuated by prejudice, poverty and family tragedy. Award Committee Chair Susan Faust predicts that "Young readers will be drawn into a narrative that radiates hope from the inside out."

Hope from the inside out - that's a theme that children of today need and one that parents and educators can tackle together.




Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at lisap@herald-mail.com.

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