Holden Caulfield’s Five Paragraph Essay on Why The Catcher in the Rye Should Not Be Taught in High School English Class

Nov 24 2014

My teachers have a lot of nerve. First, they kick me out of school. Then, I drift around the city for awhile wondering how I’m supposed to tell my parents that I got the axe again. It’s practically Christmas, for chrissake, and they had about two hemorrhages apiece the last time I failed out of school. I didn’t think that any of us could take it again.  I get beat up and robbed, and I feel like I’m going crazy. They tell me I’m having a nervous breakdown. I end up in this place full of dopefiends, borderline cases, and phony doctors who want to medicate me into being a good little prep student. They give me electroshock and these horrible pills. I wander around the place like I’m dead. All I can remember is doubting everything I ever knew, and hating myself. I can’t even think for God only knows how long. It’s like a nightmare, except I can’t wake up. I feel like I’m going to be there forever, like that’s where my story ends. It’s like I’m in a dime-store paperback and that’s where the author decided I belong in the end, and that’s how the ending stands til the end of the universe.

Then, I do wake up. I come out of the fog. It’s like I run right off the last page of the book, and I realize I’m right back in goddam high school English class again. The teacher is going on and on about my story. It’s right up there on the list of required reading material they make us write all those lousy five-paragraph essays on again and again. It’s horrible. It’s like Shakespeare really started out writing a million five paragraph essays with a goddam thesis statement in the first paragraph and a conclusion that says the same exact thing in the end every time, and that’s how we really got “King Lear” and all. The worst part is my classmates don’t get it. They don’t get me, I mean.  Some of them kind of get all the stuff the teacher always makes up about a book in high school English class, like I wore my hat because I was thinking that it was really some kind of profound statement about adolescence. I don’t know, I guess it could have been. My classmates kind of get that. They kind of get that stuff, but I don’t think they really get who I am. The ones who I think might get my story, the ones that might really get me and all, they don’t read the book.  They don’t read anything the teacher assigns. The ones who do read it talk about me in class and act like they kind of feel bad for me or something. Then they take out their style guides and write book reports on me, with a thesis statement in their first paragraph that’s always restated in the last goddam paragraph so they can get full credit, something like “Holden Caulfield is the epitome of teenage alienation and that’s why we should all have to write five-paragraph essays about him all day long,” and it just makes me sad. It’s sad-making, that they have to write about me like that. Then, there are the kids who just hate me. They’re the phonies who always hated me. They write their five paragraph essay, and it’s exactly 500 words down to the absolute last word, for God’s sake, and they spend more time making sure they put all the lousy punctuation in the right places than really writing the thing. They have exactly five direct quotes out of the book, out of my mouth, and one of them is at least three lines long so they can have a quote with an offset margin like the teacher wants. They dot every “i,” and at the end of it all they just hate me, fucking phonies, and they get “A”s on their papers because they’re 500 words down to the word and all, and they used 27 words from the vocabulary lesson in it. Then, they grow up to become middle-managers for the companies you hear about in “Forbes,” because that’s really the only reason they even read The Catcher in the Rye in the first place, or why they ever read anything in their whole phony lives. I don’t read “Forbes,” but I bet they do just so they can know who to work for.

It’s like I’m going to live forever, and this is where I’m going to spend the rest of my life. I’m going to live in high school English class forever.  The teacher tells everyone to read my story, because she thinks it’ll make the kids feel less depressed or something. It’ll make them feel like they’re not alone, like I’m a friend they could call on the phone and talk with for hours when they’re feeling low. Except, you can’t tell a person that it’s really alright to hate school when you’re in English class. You can’t make them like me if they don’t feel like I do, and you can’t tell them to be like me, when you tell them not to drink and smoke and swear and they have to do all their homework and everything. You can’t teach me in English class. You might want to, you might even really mean well, if you’re an English teacher, and one or two kids might get something out of it. I hope they do. I hope somebody feels better when they read about me and all. All I ever really wanted to do, was I wanted to save kids from English class, and from being graded, and from growing up to play some phony “game” all their lives just to make money. They have to read about me, and the teacher tells them it’s alright to think that people are phony, and then they have to do their homework about me.  How are they supposed to see through my eyes and then write a book report about it so they can get an “A” on it and grow up to sell Amway? It’s ridiculous.  It’s like the psych ward, but worse. It’s like I’m in purgatory, or hell, even. Kids are going to write these sad little five paragraph essays about me forever, and I can’t even stop it. I can’t even do anything at all about it. All I ever wanted to do was make them feel like I really got it, like I really got them. I wanted to tell them they were right all along.  I can’t even do that. You can’t do that in front of an English class. You can only do it when they stop doing their homework, when they stop putting up with all the phony bullshit the world forces on them, when they stop playing the game. I’m no Jesus, but it’s almost exactly like what they did to him. He had a good idea, he hated the phonies, and they nailed him to a goddam cross for it. Then, the phonies turned around and started a goddam church to him, like they were all sorry about it, but all they really wanted to do was completely change everything he meant. I don’t mean to say I’m anything like Jesus. Really, I’m not. He was probably a lot more loving and smarter than I am—I’m sure he was. Except they teach kids about him that way, too, and I know he would have hated it.

I feel bad for the English teachers who want to tell my story. Really, I do. A lot of them probably really mean it. They figure they have to play the game, but they don’t have to play it all the way. They probably want to tell the kids that the whole class is phony, except they can’t. They’re the teacher and all, but they probably think there’s a whole lot of little Holden Caulfields running around, getting into trouble and getting the axe, and they want to save them from the world. They probably feel bad for the kids like me. Maybe they were like me when they were young, and that’s why they want to grow up to teach The Catcher in the Rye in high school English class. I really feel bad for them.  I never hated most of my teachers. I thought some of them were a little phony, but I liked a lot of them anyway. I knew they were just looking out for me, most of them. That’s probably why they’re teaching my story, now. I feel bad that they couldn’t figure out a way not to play the game at all, though.  Maybe it was the best they could do. Maybe nobody really knows how to fix the world, and that’s why that Salinger guy ended the story he wrote about me on such a down note. I bet he might have really wanted a way to end it happily, but I didn’t know how to beat the game in the end. I don’t think anybody does. Maybe he figured he could beat it by telling my story, but people just teach it in English class, now. It’s just so goddam depressing. You could write a book about a guy who drops a nuclear bomb on a school, and if it was any good, if people thought it was really worth reading, they’d just teach it in English class and tell you not to blow up the school, by the way. That could be the point of the whole book, for chrissake, because the author really hated school, and they’d pick what they wanted to teach you about it. They’d say that the bomb was just a symbol for teenage angst or something. The English teacher might even really want to blow up the school himself, but he couldn’t teach you that. He might really want to, but he’d tell everybody that they should grow up to be a high school teacher if they really wanted to change the school. Half the kids wouldn’t even read the book, I bet, because they already hate school. The other half would feel sorry for the guy in it and act like it wasn’t his fault, like he didn’t really mean to drop a bomb on a school or anything, and one bourgeois phony who hated the book would write a five paragraph essay on it that was exactly 500 words long. She’d even get an “A” on it, for God’s sake.

I should probably start this paragraph with “In conclusion,…” because the teacher and I can both count to five. That’s exactly what I hate about school. I’ll bet the phony sonuvabitch who writes the paper that’s exactly 500 words long started this paragraph with “In conclusion,…” and changed it when the teacher told us today that it’s “weak writing.” She probably wouldn’t have even known that if the teacher didn’t tell her, but she’ll use more words from the vocabulary lesson in her paper than anybody else. Then, she’ll restate her thesis, and it’ll have nothing to do with who I really am at all. I haven’t even gotten to a thesis, because anybody who actually read the book we were assigned could figure out what I was talking about. If I had to pick a thesis, it’d be this: “The underlying message of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is unavoidably skewed by presentation in the context of a classroom, while the prevalence of its assignment to high school students actually indicates the frustration of adults with the ‘game’ and suggests the penultimate vindication of the ‘bad student’ and precocious teenage insight.” It’s a run-on, but I’m supposed to state the whole idea of everything I want to say in one crummy sentence. I can’t, though. I can’t even do it in five paragraphs. I feel sorry for the kids who have to read this book. I liked it, though.

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