I believe in Holden Caulfield. As an English teacher, it’s probably not too surprising for people to hear that I believe in a fictional character…maybe. But I believe in Holden’s mission, in the way he looked at the world and wanted to protect the people he cared about from what he saw.
Holden tells Phoebe, his little sister, that he wants to be the catcher in the rye. It comes from a line from a poem by Robert Burns, and Holden envisions himself standing in a rye field at the edge of a cliff. Lots of children are playing in the field, and it is Holden’s job to be the “catcher”: to save them from the cliff when they get too close. Holden is their protector.
The problem is that there is no catcher in the rye. Holden, like me, has a hearing problem, and the line in the poem is actually “If a body meet a body going through the rye,” not “If a body catch a body…”
Still, I believe in Holden’s idea, to an extent. I’d like to believe there is a catcher in the rye, holding up his baseball mitt that has poems written on it in green ink, spreading his arms wide and ready to catch me when I venture too close to the edge.
After my son David was born last May, my greatest fear was that somehow, someway, I would lose him. For about a week straight I would wake up from nightmares where I had lost my child. How it happened was always this gray, nebulous, fuzzy area of my dream that could never be recalled, but the terror and the despair of loss was frightening.
Whenever my husband and I talked about what our hopes and dreams were for David, I always wondered about my fears for him as well. What if he doesn’t like school? What if he is a nerd or a dork like me, and the kids tease him? Or what if he is the bully? What if he gets involved with drugs or alcohol, despite everything we teach him, despite the problems they have caused in our own families? Or…what if he doesn’t like to read?
How could I possibly protect him from everything there was to protect him from?
At night, when he had curled up to sleep in my arms, I would look down on him, unable to keep myself from running my fingers across his smooth baby’s cheeks and his little blond curls. His eyes would be closed and his little rosebud mouth would be slightly open, the slight whiff of baby formula coming from the parted lips. I would pray that no matter what my failings as a mother might be, that he would grow up to be happy, smart, successful, loving, and kind.
In the book, Holden’s depression begins spiraling out of control. He visits his sister’s elementary school and sees that someone has written “F— you” on the wall. He tries to scrub it out, but later comes across another one, and another. He finally realizes the futility of his task: there is no way to protect children from everything. He can’t stop them from growing up. He can’t shield them from the ugliness of the world.
At the end of the novel, though, it is Holden himself who needs the protection most of all. This realization that being the catcher in the rye is just a fantasy, that he will have to join this adult world that he despises, almost undoes him.
So who is there to save Holden? It is Phoebe, in her blue dress, holding Holden’s hunting hat, which she gives back to him to protect him from the rain. She offers to run away with him when he wants to flee, and in giving this promise, protects Holden with her love for him.
And so, for me, it is David who protects me. When the world becomes too ugly for me, when the apathy or rudeness or unkindness at school is sometimes too much, it is David’s bright smile as he comes running towards me, and his little arms around my neck as he catches me, and envelopes me in his love, that saves me.
While the power of love is not always enough to catch us before we go over the edge of that cliff, it is there to help lift us up after we have fallen.
In this, I believe.
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