Mid-December 1975, and I was trapped in yet another honors English class with a teacher who had already bestowed lavish praise on my older sister’s perfect essays two years earlier. Apparently she was the writer in the family, and I was a mere second best, despite my own impressive grades and (relatively) outstanding performance. Here we go again, I remember thinking when our holiday recess assignment was handed out, the familiar aroma of mimeograph fluid wafting from the purple-inked sheets.
My task was to select from among the “approved” authors to research, read all of his/her published works, and then write a term paper on some aspect of the craft. Without hesitation, I chose J.D. Salinger, having devoured a copy of A CATCHER IN THE RYE that I had been given for Hanukkah. Previous years’ Hanukkah gifts, as well as birthday presents, had always included books too, but never before had I experienced such pleasurable reading --- maybe with the long-ago exception of A.A. Milne, whose tales had enchanted me for a while, or before that, Dr. Seuss, whose clever rhymes had taught me to enjoy reading bedtime stories aloud to my otherwise annoying little brother.
Inspiration grabbed hold as I immersed myself in Salinger’s work. SEYMOUR: An Introduction; RAISE HIGH THE ROOFBEAM, CARPENTERS; FRANNY AND ZOOEY; NINE STORIES --- all of these brought me to a near-intoxicated state in which I stayed up late turning pages, and woke up early to do more of the same. Of course, I had always liked to read; in my family home all the shelves and other horizontal surfaces were perpetually overflowing with reading material. But somehow, overnight, my sense of literary joy had burst into vivid bloom, exuberant with newness. If I had known what to call it, I might have said I was falling in love.
With whom? you ask. With the irresistible Holden Caulfield? With a member of Salinger’s fabulous Glass family? Oh, no. With the author, with J.D. himself, the mystery initials and mystery man. Suddenly the term paper assignment beckoned in a freshly complicated way. How could I possibly convey to my exceptionally uptight teacher the exact nature of my discovery? How would I manage within her requirements of “formal English” and term paper “rules” to express my besotted love for this companionable voice, this “friend” telling stories as though only to me, wanting me to relax and enjoy myself? Wanting me to be myself?
Thus: an epiphany. After listening for so long to my teacher’s shrill and oppressive instructions, after drafting and tossing out scribbled pages that attempted to imitate her, that aimed at pleasing her, I found myself unfurling sentences of clear and simple prose, describing how impossible it was to speak in a “fake” manner about the authentic style I had come to admire and treasure.
I wrote about the delicious wonder of being seduced by Salinger’s books, of being welcomed and embraced and entertained and consoled. About being treated as an equal, someone worthy and original and cared for. I vowed that hypocrisy would no longer be part of my vocabulary, on or off the page.
I admit that at first I worried about my teacher’s response to this paper, predicted her red slash marks and grim disappointment. Her power over me had, until now, felt so real, so permanently inscribed. And yet, as if by miracle, I realized I didn’t care if she approved, if she chose to pronounce me Excellent or Adequate or Poor. For the first time in my life, I had truly delighted in the process of writing, and I felt proud of my work. I’ll never forget that moment of illumination, of self-recognition. The teacher’s opinion didn’t matter, just as no one else’s evaluation of my genuine thoughts and feelings had the right to measure the real me.
Not surprisingly, my teacher gave the paper a grade of B, with brief, disapproving remarks regarding “style.” I remained undeterred, undiminished. I had found something that no one could take away, realizing that the best teacher lived inside myself. Even if my self-esteem might occasionally falter or my tender ego reach for a reassuring word, I had become, irrevocably, a writer with a voice of my own.