Today’s post is something I wrote long ago--1994 to be exact. It came to my mind again because an old friend referred to it. I have changed a few words to modernize the piece, and I want young readers to know that "The Catcher in the Rye" was a top best seller in its time and often taught in high school English classes.
When I first read J.D. Salinger's novel, “The Catcher in the Rye", the catcher metaphor struck me as silly, a clumsy device invented to justify a meaningless book title. Would any real teenager see himself -- as the novel's protagonist, Holden Caulfield, does--as a rescuer of children, and why were children in need of rescue anyway?
Although I am still cynical about Salinger's creative motivation, I find the "catcher" image far more poignant and real in today's world. In contrast to the world of Holden Caulfield's rye field near the cliff, our world today has so many children who are physically, economically, socially, or psychologically in danger. Statistics don't tell the story of many children's tragic lives, but we as educators see the evidence day after day in their anger, apathy, self-destructiveness, and resistance to learning.
Because we are where children are, because they will drive us crazy if we do nothing, and because we care, teachers must be today's catchers in the rye.
I have lost faith in any and all large-scale solutions to educational problems. They just put more paperwork, regulations, and job titles between children and the help they need. Where schools are failing, it is not because they don't have enough programs and consultants, but because they have lost the human touch. Children mired in the morass of family and community decay can't benefit from higher standards, instructional technology, or remedial programs; they need caring adults to pull them out of the muck and set them on solid ground--one at a time. Only then can each child, in his or her own way, begin the adventure of learning.
I have no magic formula for child catching. Each rescue must be worked out in personal terms that fit the catcher and the child. It probably doesn't matter if the means are sophisticated or crude, gentle or tough, as long as at least one sensible adult is looking after the welfare of each child. I do believe, however, that there are some conditions that are essential for child-catching to work. The framework of operation must be small, physically close, and flexible. Forget any plan for recruiting 500 teachers as catchers, training them, and setting up a schedule for patrolling the rye. We need small schools or schools that are divided into small community units; classroom time, space, and organization that allow personal relationships to flourish; legitimacy for play and conversation in school; authority in the hands of front-line practitioners; and educational visions unclouded by political pressure to cover academic ground, raise test scores, or produce workers for industry.
Within such a framework, teachers are able to catch children who stray too close to the edge. They know each child as an individual and see most of the things that are happening to him or her. Kids hang around and tell them what they cannot see. Teachers also find time to talk to each other about classroom problems and to work with their classes to make changes in rules or processes without having to implement any special programs or bring in any outside consultants.
Although permanent rescue is a slow process and an imperfect one, catching often shows quick, dramatic results. I credit those results to what I call the "wart theory of education". In essence, that theory asserts that children's problems are like warts: If you can destroy just a few of them, the rest will get the message and go away. Children who are carrying intolerable burdens of poverty, family dysfunction, bad learning habits, and social ineptitude may shake them off in the space of a few weeks when a caring teacher takes time to talk through a single problem with them or tutor them in one small skill.
I have seen schools that do an impressive job of rescuing large numbers of children over time. Ironically, they are not the same schools that produce the highest test scores, send the most students on to college, or attract the attention of the media. Mostly, such schools don't even worry about whether the data on achievement and behavior makes them look good. Catching children is its own reward when you're out there in the rye.