I looked at the updated syllabus covering the rest of the semester. Our academic writing professor didn’t want to overwhelm us with what was to come next so he only gave us assignments up until Spring break. The first thing that caught my eye were the instructions to read chapters 1-5 of Catcher in the Rye. Catcher in the Rye is a book that holds some very significant and bitter-sweet memories for me. My mind raced back to my senior year in high mmschool.
My grandparents sent me to a very small, private Baptist high school. Most of my classmates were affluent and many had been in elementary and junior high together. I was just as much a misfit and outsider here as I was in other areas of my life. I ate lunch with a small group of three girls. Our conversations were often strained and usually boring. In my junior year, I became friends with Eileen. We took Driver’s Ed together the summer before our junior year and, we both had a crush on our instructor. It was truly a bonding experience. Her mother was the school secretary, so Eileen attended school for free. That made her a bit of misfit as well. She was pretty and smart but still an outsider. I loved having a friend at school. It made my last two years more tolerable.
The first day of our senior year we met the new English teacher. Miss Foster was young, and this was only her second year of teaching. I was immediately drawn to her. She paid attention to me in class and encouraged me. Most of my other teachers classified me an underachiever. “She is so very smart but just doesn’t apply herself,” was the verdict. No one ever bothered to ask why I didn’t apply myself. Miss Foster said I could be a writer.
Eileen stayed after school everyday waiting for mother who worked until 4:30pm. I walked about ten blocks to my grandmother’s office to wait for her. Most days I stayed and hung out with Eileen for a while. We started going to Miss Foster’s classroom at the end of the day. We would all sit around and talk. She told us we could call her Bitsy after school. We even convinced her to be a chaperone for us the next summer on a cruise to the Bahamas. Our senior class wasn’t going to be able to take the traditional Bahama cruise. The school’s administrators decided it wasn’t a “wholesome” environment, so our class was going to New York City and Washington, DC. We thought our parents just might let us go together if we had a teacher go along. We never did ask them.
Eileen was out sick one week, so I was able to have some one on one time with Bitsy. She told me she wanted to talk with me about something important.
“I have something I want to give you.” She pulled two books from her satchel.
“I want to give you these two books. They are different from anything you have read before. I think you will get a lot out of reading them. You are so smart and I know you will understand them. I must warn you; they have some ‘four letter’ words in them. If you want them, I have to ask that you never show them to anyone. Keep them as something private, just for yourself. If someone does see them, you can’t tell them where you got them. If anyone knew I gave you these books, I could lose my job. Do you think you can keep this secret?”
“Yes, I promise I can. I would really love to read them.”
I had no idea what the books were about and I didn’t care. I would read anything Bitsy gave me. I would go to any lengths to protect her. You could have tortured me and thrown me into jail and I wouldn’t have budged. I imagined myself much like the Apostle Paul being martyred for the sake of the Gospel, only I was doing it because I wanted to keep her in my life. The lonely little girl in me saw her as a mother figure. She had no way of knowing that I was a champion at keeping secrets. I had kept secrets since I was old enough to talk.
What strange titles for books- Franny and Zooey and Catcher in the Rye. She was right. I had never read anything like them before. I devoured Catcher in the Rye much as a wild animal devours its prey. Lines like, “Mothers are all slightly insane,” made me love this book. I was infatuated with Holden Caulfield. I knew that had he been a real boy we would have been the perfect couple. I knew he would “get” me. Bitsy laughed when I rushed in after school the next week and asked her if there were any other books like these I could read. I told her that I found something in them that was real and that made sense to me. She promised to find others for me.
Just two weeks later we were in class when the principal came to our room and asked Miss Foster to come to her office. My heart sank; Could someone have found out? I would deny everything if asked. Miss Foster returned just before the end of our class. She was carrying a bouquet of flowers and it was obvious that she had been crying. A man in a military uniform followed her into the classroom. We all knew she was dating a man in the Navy. They announced their engagement to the class as she showed off her new ring.
That afternoon Eileen and I went to her room to find out all the details. She had an unusually sad look for someone who had just been engaged.
“I have to tell you both something. You can’t say anything until it is announced on Monday to the rest of the school. I wanted to tell you this myself.” My heart was racing. I wanted to put my fingers in my ears and say “lalalalalala” and pretend I couldn’t hear her talking. I had an idea what was coming next.
“I know you remember how unhappy I was because Micheal was being transferred to Virginia. He came to propose to me because he wants me to go with him. I am going to be leaving in three weeks to go with him. I am going to miss you both more than you can imagine.”
I put on my brave face and congratulated her. I told her I was going to miss her very much. Inside I was screaming’ “Please don’t go. Please! I don’t think I can survive the rest of high school without you!” I cried myself to sleep that night and for a week after she left. I was used to losing people in my life but it never got any easier.
I hid the two books away. I kept them on my book shelf for many years after I left high school. I never opened them or read them again. I have known that Catcher in the Rye was on our list of required books since I registered for the class. Even though I ordered all of my other books early, I didn’t buy that one until yesterday. I stood in Barnes and Noble holding the book and for a few moments I became that scared, wounded sixteen year old girl who fell in love with Holden and the book. I didn’t know if I was ready to meet Holden Caulfield again, but I think I am. I thought about Bitsy and how much she changed my life in just a few short months. It’s one of the things that amazes me most about my life; the right people show up just when I need them most.
“Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.”
― J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye