The teachers we remember are the ones who were really good and really bad. With Mr. Spencer and Mr. Antolini, Salinger delivers archetypes of these two extremes.
Salinger brands Mr. Spencer into our memory: [Holden's visiting Spencer in his apartment. He's been summoned there by Spencer, his history teacher, after Spencer learned Holden was being expelled for poor academic performance. Spencer reads to Holden from one of his exams.]
"Dear Mr. Spencer. That is all I know about the Egyptians. I can’t seem to get very interested in them although your lectures are very interesting. It is all right with me if you flunk me though as I am flunking everything else except English anyway. Respectfully yours, Holden Caulfield."
He put my goddam paper down then and looked at me like he’d just beaten hell out of me in ping-pong or something. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive him for reading me that crap out loud. I wouldn’t’ve read it out loud to him if he’d written it—I really wouldn’t. In the first place, I’d only written that damn note so that he wouldn’t feel too bad about flunking me.
“Do you blame me for flunking you, boy?” he said.
“No, sir! I certainly don’t,’ I said. I wished to hell he’d stop calling me “boy” all the time.
"What would you have done in my place?" he said. "Tell the truth, boy."
Well, you could see he really felt pretty lousy about flunking me. So I shot the bull for a while. I told him I was a real moron, and all that stuff. I told him how I would've done exactly the same thing if I'd been in his place, and how most people didn't appreciate how tough it is being a teacher. That kind of stuff. The old bull.
The funny thing is, though, I was sort of thinking of something else while I shot the bull. I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park Slouth. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go. I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondererd if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away.
Holden has zoned out. Spencer is clueless about Holden's predicament, the crises he's going through. And all the teacher can think about is covering his ass and soothing his guilt at Holden's expense. He's kicking the boy while he's down instead of trying to understand. Some would call it tough love. I call it stupidity and incompetence.
Antolini, on the other hand, expresses empathy and offers Holden some very powerful advice.
A: "I have a feeling that you're riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall. But I don't honestly know what kind...Are you listening to me?" [Remember, James Castle "fell" out of a window and Antolini picked up the body.]
..."It may be the kind where, at the age of thirty, you sit in some bar hating everybody who comes in looking as if he might have played football in college. ...Or you may end up in some business office, throwing paper clips at the nearest stenographer."
..."This fall I think you're riding for--it's a special kind of fall, a horrible kind. The man falling isn't permitted to feel or hear himself hit bottom. He just keeps falling and falling. The whole arrangement's designed for men who,at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something their own environment couldn't supply them with. Or they thought their own environment couldn't supply them with. So they gave up looking. They gave up before they even got started."
..."I don't want to scare you," he said, "but I can very clearly see you dying nobly, one way or another, for some highly unworthy cause."
...'The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.'"
..."you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them--if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry."
..."educated and scholarly men, if they'r brilliant and creative to begin with--which, unfortunately, is rarely the case--tend to leave infinitely more valuable records behind them than men do who are merely brilliant and creative. They tend to express themselves more clearly, and they usually have a passion for following their thoughts through to the end."
..."Something else an academic education will do for you. If you go along with it any considerable distance, it'll begin to give you an idea what size mind you have. What it'll fit and, maybe, what it won't. After a while, you'll have an idea what kind of thoughts your particular size mind should be wearing. For one thing, it may save you an extraordinary amount of time trying on ideas that don't suit you, aren't becoming to you. You'll begin to know your true measurements and dress your mind accordingly." [Salinger explored and tried on a number of the world's religions and philosophies, including Yoga, Christian Science, Edgar Cayce and Scientology.]
One teacher kicks the boy while he's down; another tries to understand and help him. As archetypes, Spencer and Antolini have something to teach us. We've all seen them. Salinger's held up the mirror. Let's hope some teachers recognize their reflection.
It's clear the teacher wants to help Holden and gives him some inspiring advice, but if it's tainted by some animal lust to exploit the boy in a hyper-vulnerable state, then it's entirely different. But there's no compelling evidence of that. Stroking or patting Holden’s head is not a molestation, but it could have been an exploration for something further. Even today, a woman can stroke a boy's hair and people think she's being motherly. But let a man breathe on a child and it's interpreted differently.
It was taken that way by Holden, confusing and alarming him, but not traumatizing or Holden would not have kept the Stekel quote.
Here's the text:
“I woke up all of a sudden. I don’t know what time it was or anything, but I woke up. I felt something on my head, some guy’s hand. Boy, it really scared hell out of me. What it was, it was Mr. Antolini’s hand. …he was sitting on the floor right next to the couch, in the dark and all, and he was sort of petting me or patting me on the goddam head. Boy, I’ll bet I jumped about a thousand feet.
‘What the hellya doing?’ I said.
‘Nothing! I’m simply sitting here, admiring—‘
‘What’re ya doing, anyway?’ I said over again. I didn’t know what the hell to say—I mean I was embarrassed as hell.
‘How ‘bout keeping your voice down? ‘m simply sitting here—‘
‘I have to go, anyway,” I said—boy, was I nervous! I started putting on my damn pants in the dark. I could hardly get them on I was so damn nervous. I know more damn perverts, at schools and all, than anybody you ever met, and they’re always being pervert when I’m around.’”
Holden misjudges Antolini and runs away from the only person who has so far understood his crisis and is compassionate enough to try and help.
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