Can a book change a life?
Our tenth grade English class was deep into The Scarlet Letter, the classic by Nathanial Hawthorne. I was mesmerized not only by the writing and the story, but also by its symbolism. Hester Prynne carried her shame on her chest every day, the bright red letter A which identified her as an adulterer. Things weren’t bad enough in Puritan America without her having to not only hold her beloved Pearl in her arms but to have her shame emblazoned for all to see.
Our teacher, Mrs. Frances Clute, was a friend of my parents She and her husband John had spent time with my parents, and she knew me well.
One day, after class, Mrs. Clute asked me to stay a little longer. As the rest of my classmates dashed out the door for Mr. Kennedy’s World History class, she pulled out a small book from one of her desk drawers.
“This is Catcher in the Rye, Marilyn,” Mrs. Clute told me. “I know how much you love The Scarlet Letter. This is also a book that deals with symbolism. I am giving it to you with your promise not to share it with any of your classmates.”
I was grateful for her trust. Even if I knew nothing about J. D. Salinger’s 1951classic, I knew she trusted me and saw in me the enthusiasm and the intelligence to handle its content and meaning.
I probably read it all that night, the whole story of Holden Caulfield, his depression, his flight from his private school, his trip to New York. I read how he wanted to save his sister Phoebe from any dangers that she would experience. I “got” the meaning of the “catcher in the rye,” the person who wanted to always protect those whom he loved.
I also saw why Mrs. Clute had been furtive in her gift. The book had language that was certainly not in books usually selected by Keeseville Central School. I now don’t remember if it contained the “F” word, but it had other language and actions that were certainly not broadcast in our small upstate New York town. What made it great was the symbolism, the depth of the story behind the words.
I had already decided that I would be a teacher. After reading Salinger’s classic, however, I knew I wanted to be an English teacher. I would spend my college years reading other classics, and then I would go on to teach others to love literature as much as I did. I followed that dream.
Looking back,I realize from my older eyes how shallow my understanding and appreciation of great literature was in college.There are classics that I read and hated, Moby Dick probably the most memorable. (I had to read it in one week. It was about a whale.)
In my first teaching job, I was assigned to share Brave New World, 1984, and Night with juniors and seniors in our school small town near Albany. I realized that not only did they not understand the books’ meanings. Most of them couldn’t even read. I had been a last minute replacement for a man who decided in June to pursue his doctorate, and all the students had signed up to be in “The Cool Class with the Cool Teacher.” I was not the cool teacher.
In the years that followed, I have tried and failed to read other classics, including Les Miserables, Anna Karenina, War and Peace, One Hundred Years of Solitude. I missed the depth in so many books.
It is January, and as I have every year, I have those four books on my “To Read” books. I probably will never get to them, preferring the New York Times best sellers and ones recommended by my bookish friends. But maybe, in honor of Mrs. Clute, I will take my copies of The Scarlet Letter and Catcher in the Rye down from my shelf. While sheltering in place during this pandemic, I will revisit my friendship with Hester Prynne and Holden Caulfield. And, even though I know I have still a great deal to learn about literature and symbolism and the classics, I will accept that Mrs. Clute recognized that I had that spark in me. And for that I will be forever grateful.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York.
Picture Credit: By Mary Hallock Foote – The Scarlet Letter – edition: James R. Osgood & Co,, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11264794