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Catchers in the Rye

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When I first read J.D. Salinger's novel, The Catcher in the Rye, many years ago, the catcher metaphor struck me as silly, a clumsy device invented to justify a meaningless 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?

Today, 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 early 1950's world of Holden Caulfield's rye field near the cliff, there are so many children who are physically, economically, socially, or psychologically in danger. Statistics don't tell the story of 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, educators must be today's catchers in the rye.

I have lost faith in any and all large-scale, organized 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 projects and programs, but because they have lost the human touch. Children mired in the morass of family and community decay can't benefit from red ribbons, higher standards, or instructional technology; 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 to children, 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, educators 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. Children hang around and tell them what they cannot see. Educators find time to talk to each other and time to teach children about the world without having to "implement" or "assess" anything. They can make exceptions to rules and change foolish ones. They can do things differently. When the behavior of children or of bureaucrats becomes intolerable, teachers can even stamp their feet and yell, "This has got to stop!"

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 states that children's problems are like warts: If you can destroy just a few of them, the rest may get the message and go away. Children who are carrying intolerable burdens of 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 win awards, attract researchers, or produce remarkable test scores. Mostly, such schools don't even bother to collect the data on achievement and behavior that would make them look good. Who cares? Catching children is its own reward when you're out there in the rye.

Joanne Yatvin is the superintendent of Clackamas County School District 107 in Boring, Ore., and the principal of Cottrell School.

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