Self-destructive rebels

In my previous post, The Reunion, I referred to a another post where I mentioned the novel A Catcher in the Rye, but it didn’t occur to me that I had not yet translated it (I write these posts in Norwegian first). It’s in the wrong order, but here is the post I should have published first:

little rock nine
The Governor of Arkansas tried to maintain the racial segregation at the schools. Federal soldiers had to protect black pupils at the Central High School in Little Rock in september 1957. They were “rebels with a cause.”
Photo: National Archives via wikimedia commons

My wife and I sometimes discuss a few literary iconic youth rebels, and we are never going to agree. I am thinking particularly of Rebel without a Cause, which was immortalized on film by James Dean, and the novel A Catcher in the Rye. I recently re-read the latter novel. I have read this countless times since I was a teenager in the 80s, and it is clearly on the list of my favorite books.

I see the point that these are privileged youngsters who don’t have as much reason to rebel as many others. The James Dean movie came out in 1955, the year after the Supreme Court of the United States had decided that the schools were being unlawfully segregated. Three years after the Supreme Court decision the Little Rock Nine started at Little Rock Central High School, and The National Guard was deployed to prevent “the white mob” from attacking these teens.

The situation in the U.S.A. shows how late progress is. After the end of slavery in 1864, Jim Crow continued until the mid-1960s. Jim Crow refers to local/state laws that still upheld segregation in the United States. My wife, who is African American, was born in 1967 as the last of seven children. She was the first of these siblings to start primary school together with white children. She went to the same Little Rock Central High School that became world famous in the 50’s.

A Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, in the same period as things started happening for blacks in the United States. It spoke strongly to me too 30 years later, especially topics like alienation, challenges in the transition from childhood to adulthood, the adult world lies and facade, loneliness, friendship and sexuality etc. That’s why I still read it from time to time. The main character in the book, Holden Caulfield, is an underachiever, which I was too for a very long time, and at the beginning of the book he is expelled from school after failing four out of five subjects. I can still see that an African-American, who grew up in the same period, might have a different perspective. This difference in terms of opportunities has probably increased, rather than decreased. There are still a lot people growing up with more privileges than many others who fail to take advantage of what they’ve been given. Something makes them more focused on what they don’t have than what they have, or can obtain through work and talent. I see this attitude a lot in my job as a teacher. It is perhaps understandable, but still problematic.

Growing up I thought much like the protagonist Holden. The adult world was not something I wanted anything to do with, and in many ways I still dislike it. Holden’s favorite expression is phony and I guess he had a point about that, but the fact that this son of a lawyer failed on purpose because he hated his parents, is undoubtedly a wrong choice.

I’m thinking about this regarding today’s youth. Much has changed since A Catcher in the Rye was published. We are richer and have more opportunities than ever. You can get somewhere without the old silver spoon these days. It may not feel like it, but the world is more fair than ever. The challenges that the book describes are still relevant, however. There are still issues worth fighting for, but it is also important to pick battles. Today there is a lot of anger among the kids, but they don’t seem to know why or where to aim it. Being angry and rebellious all the time can be pretty exhausting. I speak from experience. Many of today’s rebels have good reason not to give up, but I see a lot of them give up school.

If young people believe that the adult world is full of phonies, they may feel that sabotaging their own future is a good idea. Sometimes these types of self-destructive actions can be explained logically, but I doubt if it applies to everyone. Some of them just give up, they are literally rebels without a cause. Holden Caulfield was the son of a lawyer. I think he could have accepted the education his father paid for, and still made a different choice than the parents wanted. It’s kind of what I’ve done, except that I had to pay myself.

There are many ways to protest. If you are privileged, as most in Norway are, I have limited sympathy with those who make themselves dependent on others. In the US, they do not have the good benefits we have in socialist Norway, so Holden Caulfield would probably have become dependent on support from the parents he detested.

In contrast to this self-destructive literary figure, I have fought a reverse battle. I have busted my ass through school with quite significant learning difficulties. As a teacher I see students who are well equipped for academic work, probably better equipped than I was at the same age, but they throw it away all together. That is frustrating. I teach middle school, and I don’t know what happens to the kids later, but sometimes I wonder if I just sent off another Holden Caulfield to the next level.

Sadly these kinds of attitudes don’t only occur in books. They are real.

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