Who Knew?

By Margaret Van Every

catcher rye


Jeanette annually spent a couple of weeks with each of her three granddaughters who lived in different cities across the US. Her youngest and dearest grandchild Danica had recently started middle school in upstate New York and Jeanette was visiting the family during the leaf season. Danica insisted that her grandmother come to her new school and sit in on her English class. “Mr. Jackson is unlike the other teachers,” coaxed Danica. “He makes us think about things we never paid attention to before. The students absolutely adore him and I promise you’ll enjoy the class.”

And so one morning Jeanette climbed the front steps at the appointed time, met Danica at the desk in the lobby, and off they went through the maze of corridors lined with lockers to the room where the magic would ensue. Danica introduced her grandmother with pride to Mr. Jackson and the class, and Jeanette was given a seat to the side and up front where she could witness the much touted teacher in action as well as observe the students. She noticed that enthusiastic girls like her Danica had claimed the front two rows, their pens and notebooks poised before the class began.

Mr. Jackson looked to be near 40. He was good looking and cultivated a devil-may-care dishevelment. The school didn’t seem to object that his unkempt hair was shoulder length or that he wore shabby red sneakers and holey jeans. He gestured franticly as he paced before the class and ranted about Holden Caulfield, the classic disaffected brainchild of JD Salinger. Mr. Jackson seemed bent on stirring up this gathering of well bred and as yet unawakened young adults. Out of his mouth flew words their parents had forbidden plus a slew of words they’d never heard before that caused their ears to tingle. Mr. Jackson made rebellion sound like the great adventure they had been missing, all because they were trying to be obedient boys and girls and make their parents proud. “In fact, you’re no better than a herd of docile sheep!” he sneered. “You’ve grown up in straightjackets and you don’t even know it!”

Before them lay an exciting world of expletives, sex, experimentation, and discovery—theirs in exchange for breaking free of the stifling safety of their bourgeois predictable existence. “This class is more about life than about books,” he yelled, shaking his fist in the air and contemptuously staring them down. “Literature is a means for learning how to live through plots and characters.”

Jeanette studied the histrionics of Mr. Jackson and the reactions of the girls in the front two rows. He was the purveyor of excitement in daring the class to accept risks in finding their true identity. The girls were buying it. The wilder he gesticulated, the more sold they appeared to be. After the class, Jeanette thanked and hugged Danica and said they’d see each other at home after school. Jeanette started walking back to the house, kicking up leaves as she mulled over what she had just heard. She had been about the same age as Danica when she had first read Catcher in the Rye in the 1950s, but her so-called “silent generation” had gotten a totally different message from it. Holden Caulfield was an alienated teenage misfit who was writing his memoirs from a mental asylum. He was a failure at his boarding school from which he had been expelled. In the story, he is running away from the school and his home, afraid to tell his parents the truth, miserable to the point he considers ending his life. Where was the heroism in that?

Jeanette was deeply disturbed by the classroom drama she had witnessed. The most threatening thing, she thought, was the manipulative power of Mr. Jackson. He could say just about anything and get away with it, so gullible was his captive audience. From her vantage point, she could feel the ratcheting visceral dynamic between teacher and students. He got high stirring them up, and the more they grinned and nodded and squirmed, the more worked up he got, the adrenaline spiraling on both sides.

It would have been different had Jackson invited the students to analyze and discuss Caulfield’s behavior and its outcomes, but no, he used insults to jar them out of their complacency. He called them cowards and sheep and threatened them with an unbearable humdrum rut of a life unless they broke away from everything they knew. In addition, Jeanette had a nagging intuition there was something else bubbling under the surface. She wasn’t sure how she sensed this and whether it was fair to trust an intuition. What exactly is an intuition anyway? Some hunch based on subliminal clues, fed mostly by fear? She had to admit she feared for her impressionable, precocious Danica, the archetypal innocent, ravenous to taste all the apples on the tree of life.

Walking briskly in the cold autumn air precipitated clarity. No, Jeanette would not mention her suspicion to Danica’s mother, nor to the school authorities. She would not damage her relationship with Danica by telling her her own old-fashioned interpretation of Holden Caulfield’s miserable angst-filled misadventure. Instead, she stopped at a phone booth that caught her eye and made an appointment with Pinkerton’s Detective Agency.

Next day, on the alibi she was out shopping, she went to their office and told them she wanted a thorough background check on Mr. Jackson. She stipulated that though she had instigated the investigation and was paying for it, she must not have her name associated with it in any form whatsoever. Instead, she ordered that copies of the report be sent to the Superintendent of Schools, the Chairman of the School Board, and the principal of the middle school.

After another week in this lovely part of the world, Jeanette returned home. Not long after, she received a call from her daughter. “Mom, you’ll never guess what’s happened here. It’s all over the news. Danica’s favorite teacher, Mr. Jackson, remember him? You sat in on his class? Well, seems he’s turned out to have been a sex offender and has actually had a history right here at Danica’s school. Danica is heartbroken, insists it must be a mistake, but Mr. Jackson is no longer teaching here.”

After a few moments of silence, Jeanette said, “Well, that must be quite a shock for the community. I’m sorry our Danica is so disappointed . . . I wonder where Mr. Jackson will turn up next?”             

(Ed. Note: Margaret Van Every is a writer of fiction and poetry, perhaps best known locally for her bilingual collection of five-line poems A Pillow Stuffed with Diamonds/ Una almohada rellena con diamantes (2011)Other books of poetry include Saying Her Name (2012) and holding hands with a stranger (2014). All are available at Diane Pearl’s Colecciones and from amazon.com.)


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