Literature is a gift that can fire the imagination and propel the mind into new discoveries. Then again, literature sometimes contains filthy words that corrupt our young and foster anti-establishment thought processes.
Both the sentences above describe an actual position taken by educational leaders. Amazingly enough both of these positions once existed in the same time and in very nearly the same place. I know. I lived it. Lucky me.
You see, I spent my elementary school years in East Hartford, Connecticut. It was then and still is a lovely little suburban town known for Pratt and Whitney airplane engines and the ability to supply a nearly endless stream of office workers to the world headquarters of a mind-numbing number of insurance companies just across the river in Hartford.
Just as I was about to enter high school my family moved to the considerably more affluent, rural and intellectually liberal town of Glastonbury. The two towns share a border. Their inhabitants are almost indistinguishable from one another. Yet there was a stark contrast between the two that could be attributed to a young punk who was causing trouble. His name was, Holden Caulfield. That little bastard swore, and he swore a lot dammit. East Hartford wouldn’t stand for it. Glastonbury on the other hand, embraced him.
Holden is a fictional character, of course. The invention of a creative recluse named J.D. Salinger, Holden was a tour de force of literature. He spoke like wise-ass kids spoke. He showed poor judgement and did stupid things that rebellious young men tend to do. He smoked, and swore and visited with a prostitute. He was a bad kid. A misguided kid. Exactly the sort of person a responsible school board would make sure their students were shielded from. No good could come of reading Holden’s story in East Hartford. None. Or maybe it could.
Even at the tender age of 13, when I entered Glastonbury High School for the first time – I was aware that Holden was in my future. In Glastonbury you see, The Catcher in the Rye was required reading. Every single kid who graduated from good ol’ GHS had read Holden’s story and talked about the boy until they were blue in the face. Just across an imaginary line in East Hartford however, a teacher who had the audacity to pass out copies of that infernal book to their students would be fired.
As I reflect on this little oddity of my youth, I wonder, maybe that’s why I became a writer. Seriously. Perhaps my fate was sealed early on when my young, impressionable mind became aware that it was possible to be a rebel and an intellectual simultaneously. Who knew that language could illicit such reactions from adults? It was my good fortune to meet teachers who loved the challenge of sharing the story and leading discussions that might shed light on the author’s motivations. At the exact same time I knew others who feared the bad words, the bad ideas, the general bad-assness of the story and the questions it would raise from the curious, unwieldy minds of students. Kids who would be titillated by the action, the circumstances, or the overall tone of a the book.
They were afraid of a fucking book! Wrap your head around that, if you can.
Yes, it’s true. I learned young that language is a tool. And like any tool it can be understood and used to the benefit of those who have control of it. It can also be feared, ridiculed, relegated to back rooms. The oft maligned users of that tool are commonly shunned. Consequently perhaps, I swear in real life and occasionally swear in my writing. Because as I learned from the comparison of Holden to my own world all those years ago, some people swear. Some smoke. Some visit prostitutes and do stupid things that are counter to their own best interests. But they don’t do these things because Holden Caulfield led them to vice. Quite the opposite, Holden is a reflection of the very people who try so hard to stifle him and prevent his story from being told.
Maybe that’s why I write – because it irritates me that somebody, somewhere wants to stop people like me from telling the story we want to tell. Well, screw ‘em, I say. I went to Glastonbury High School dammit, and graduated in the year of our country’s bicentennial. I believe in the first amendment, freedom of thought, and great stories of young men swearing, acting dumb, and hanging out with hookers – and whatever else their authors can con them into doing for the entertainment and enlightenment of readers.
You know what? Who cares why I write. Just read a damn story for Chrissake. You’ll be better for it.