An Essay by Nina LaCour
I taught high school English for six years, and during that time reading—and sharing reading with my teenage students—became complicated. It was a small independent school and I had the exhilarating gift of complete control over what I taught with the one stipulation that the students must annotate. I had mixed feelings about the mandatory scribbled marginalia. Sometimes I silently agreed with the kids when they complained it took the joy out of reading. But when the days came for me to collect their books and walk to the teachers’ room with my precarious towers of Their Eyes Were Watching God or Frankenstein or (of course) The Catcher in the Rye, and flip through their notes in order to give them grades, I received what felt like insights to their souls. I saw what moved them, what infuriated them, what they hated and what they loved. The passion in their notes! Time after time it amazed me.
Before teaching I thought there was a certain universality to reading. Like regardless of what life had dealt us, and regardless of our value systems and sense of morality and religion and political leanings, if we all read the same thing it might move us in the same moments. We would feel for the characters and thereby for each other. But teaching quickly freed me of the illusion. Picture Holden Caulfield, asking the cab driver about where the ducks go in winter. One student wrote, Shut up! Another wrote, I know exactly how he feels!!! Or, a metaphor for adulthood? Or nothing. I learned that just as we are individuals in life, we are so in reading.
But the beauty of reading is that it is so deeply personal that even though I know all this, I’m still surprised when someone finds a character I adore grating, or isn’t captivated by the language or the feeling or the themes of a book the way I am. When I read, I forget that I’m not the only person in the world. I have trouble fulfilling the tasks of daily life. The book wants to consume me and, often, I let it.
I remember the first time I read that part with Holden and the ducks. It was seventh grade, and I was right on the verge of things. I felt like all it would take was a gentle push, a strong gust of wind, and I’d be plunging into adulthood. And Holden was asking what happened to the ducks, and I was in love with his voice and his desperation, and I didn’t yet know that everyone had read this book, and that many people would have looked at me, an adolescent girl with the paperback clutched to my heart, and called me a cliché. I’m glad I didn’t know. I’m glad I let it move me. I’m glad that it moves me, still.