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The emotional impact of stories May 30, 2010

Posted by Christine Coleman in Books, Writing.
For the past 12 years, I’ve always read “The Catcher in the Rye” at this time of year. And every year, some part of the book touches me in a new way to make me again realize a writer is what I’m meant to be.

Initially I read the book sometime during high school (although not as an assignment) and was required to do so during my freshman year of college. As with so many readers before me and since, I connected with Holden Caulfield and related to his angst and confusion.

In 1998 I was again assigned to read the book in college, this time for an English class on rites of passage in literature at a local community college. As an explanation: the year before, I’d decided to change careers and become an elementary school teacher. That, of course, meant going back to school. Obtaining an elementary education teaching certificate in Illinois was, at the time, a cumbersome process even with a bachelor’s degree. (In all likelihood it still is, but I’m unfamiliar with what’s required now.) The amount of classes needed was staggering, so I started at the community college. When I found out I could complete one of the English electives needed in three weeks during May-June 1998, I jumped at the opportunity for this rites of passage class.

The class was an interesting mix of students. Probably two-thirds were 18 to 20 years old, with some of them home for the summer from other colleges and looking for a quick three credit hours. The other third of the students were like me, mostly in our 30s and a mixture of men and women. We met for three hours a night, Mondays through Thursdays, and the workload was obviously intense. For Memorial Day weekend, our assignment was to read “The Catcher in the Rye.”

At our next class, the day after Memorial Day, we discussed the book. Everyone had something to say, even those who didn’t normally speak up during class. All related to some aspect of Holden, which created an energizing discussion. The younger students didn’t find as much humor in the book as we adults did, but that added to the back-and-forth dialogue. No matter the opinion, it was talked about.

A week or so later, while I was completing my take-home final exam and answering questions about “Catcher” and the other stories and poems we covered during the brief course, I realized the impact that these works had on the reader. Simple words printed on paper could cause these reactions, elicit earnest discussions. Stories really do have power.

It took a couple of months before I came to the realization that writing, and not teaching, was where my interest and talents are. After that, I quit pursuing the teaching certificate and turned my attention to creating those words on paper (or computer monitor). But since I sometimes stumble with my resolve throughout the course of a year, I still get the urge to read again Holden’s story and feel its impact right around now. It reminds me of the rites of passage class and what I learned both inside and outside of that classroom.

I’m about halfway through reading the book right now. Familiar though it is, the emotional connection still remains.