When I ask my 11th-graders—all white, all relatively privileged, all attending an expensive private school—why we read The Catcher in the Rye in high school, this is their answer: We can learn from Holden Caulfield because we are him and he is us. Like us, Holden lives in New York City and sometimes finds school to be hard. He struggles with being a teenager and with loss and family issues. We can see his failings—with women, with alcohol, with friendship—and we understand. Holden articulates the “real” problems of being a teenager in the real world.
But that answer feels incomplete to me. Sure, Holden is some of us, and we may understand what it’s like to struggle as rich, white people whose problems don’t go away just because we have privileges. However, continuing to believe that Holden is a “typical teenager” allows us to ignore the many teenagers who experience absolutely nothing of what Holden experiences as a wealthy white kid.
So, immediately after teaching The Catcher in the Rye (a mandated text in our curriculum), I now assign Jennifer Gonnerman's series of essays on Kalief Browder, the black teenager who, just miles from the high school where I teach, was picked up on false robbery charges, held in prison without trial for three years, and eventually committed suicide. Holden’s and Kalief’s experiences are worlds apart.
After weeks of reading about Kalief, hearing his voice in recorded interviews, studying statistics from Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow and learning about other bias-related injustices against young black men, my students stop saying that Holden is a typical teenager. They start communicating reflections like this instead: “No matter what anyone says, I believe that I have it different than African Americans in our country. This is only because of the upper-class background I have and the appearance I have. People and police don’t make the assumptions they make about me that they would make about black people.”
It’s no coincidence this terrible story happened to Kalief and not Holden Caulfield, or any other white person. Had Holden or any person of his stature been put in Kalief’s situation, it certainly would not have escalated to the devastating levels that it did for Kalief. Kalief and Holden clearly have many similarities. These similarities point out the differences that still prevail, and make their outcomes so different from each other’s. Holden was free—free to roam around New York City, alone, without worry of being stopped by police or suspected of a crime. Kalief was confined, and not only to his prison cell. Whereas Holden was free and able to dream about his future, Kalief could only dream as far as proving his innocence and getting out of prison.
I might prefer to replace The Catcher in the Rye with a less rarified novel of teenage life in America, one in which the protagonist’s family cannot buy him private therapy and placement in a new boarding school. But if we continue to teach Catcher, then let’s frame it with a different kind of urban teen narrative. Let’s talk about Kalief Browder. Let’s talk about race, racism and class. Let’s stop pretending that Holden is typical and see him instead as the privileged anomaly he is. It’s time for more students to hear another story.
Steinberg teaches English at SAR High School in the Bronx.