In my teen writing class at the Mount Horeb Public Library last week, we segued into discussing Catcher in the Rye, and one of my students made the following observation (which I’m paraphrasing):
Some of my friends have said that, since the characters in the book were rich, Holden’s problems weren’t that significant. But in so many other books I’ve read, the problems seem to come out of the poverty and economic situations of the characters, or at least be so connected to it that it all gets blurry. When the characters are rich, you know that that’s not the source of the problem, that it’s something from within the characters themselves, and it makes it their problems much more vivid and clear.
I’ll admit, this idea had never occurred to me. I really doesn’t enjoy reading about the “first world problems” of people with no economic worries, which is one reason why many books, not just Catcher in the Rye, irk me (for example, don’t get me started on Eat, Pray, Love). But my student forced me to re-evaluate my position with this simple observation.
This was reinforced when I discussed this with a friend who’s also the editor of the local paper. He said that’s exactly the reason he likes Batman so much. Again paraphrasing:
People complain that Bruce Wayne is just a rich do-gooder, but that’s part of the point. He’s trying to correct the one thing that all his wealth and power can never fix: the death of his parents.
In my teen class, I try to share mainly the practical aspects of being a writer, stuff I’ve had to learn the hard way since I had no mentor to guide me when I was their age. I never tell the students what to write, or how to write about it. As I say at the beginning of each six-week session, I can’t make them great writers, but I can make them better writers.
But as this indicates, it’s not one-way learning. These students are not burdened with thirty-plus years of experience; they see with fresh eyes, and uncluttered perspectives, and to negate that as being foolish simply because they’re chronologically young would mark me as a fool.
So after this epiphany, what did we do?