The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Catchers in the Rye

on October 6, 2019

Because school started last month I expected to be able to write about current happenings– good or bad– in in our schools. But I’ve had no luck so far. Nothing of the kind is appearing in the newspapers or other sources I read. Like you readers I want to know about education today, and I strongly resent being held in the dark. Because I believe that public education is a basic component in our country I must continue to write about it even though the newspapers seem to consider it an issue of the past. For that reason I am posting a piece today that I wrote and published in 1994, long before I had begun writing this blog . I have chosen to post it here today because I believe it is as significant now as it was back then, 25 years ago.

When I first read J.D. Salinger’s novel, “The Catcher in the Rye”, it struck me as a clumsy story written to justify a meaningless title. Would any real teenager see himself as the rescuer of endangered children, as the boy in that book does?

Today, even though I am still cynical of Salinger’s novel, I find his catcher image poignant and real. There are so many children in this country who are physically, economically, socially, or psychologically in danger. Even though statistics don’t tell the story of children’s tragic lives, 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, we must be today’s catcher in the rye.

I have no magic formula for child-catching. Each rescue must be worked out in personal terms that fit the catcher and the child. Probably it doesn’t even matter if our ways are sophisticated or crude, gentle or tough; as long as one sensible adult is looking after the welfare of each child.

I do believe, however, that there are conditions that are are essential for child-catching to succeed. 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. To succeed we need small schools or ones divided into small community units; reasonable classroom time and space, personal relationships, and classroom legitimacy for play and conversation. Also, authority should be 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 one as an individual and become aware of what is happening to him. They also find time to teach children about the world, and without having to”implement” or “assess” any current practices make exceptions to rules, change foolish ones, and act differently from past mistakes. Ultimately, when the behavior of children or bureaucrats becomes intolerable, teachers may even stamp their feet and shout, “This has got to stop!”

Although a legal permanent rescue is a slow process and an imperfect one, catching often shows quick and dramatic results. I credit those results to what I call the “wort theory” of education. In essence it 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, or social ineptitude may shake them off in a few weeks when a caring teacher takes the time to talk through a single problem with them or tutor them in one new skill. In essence what I am saying here is that good teachers are the people who must decide and act on what is best for their students, not experts who are far away, bound by countless rules, and have no personal understanding of an individual’s problem.

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