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Summerland Rye Fields

January 29, 2010

It is February 1976, the start of a new school year and I am in Year 10. The school is buzzing about the new English teacher: an impossibly blonde foreigner all the way from Denver, Colorado in the US of A.  Miss Diane Vickrey was intent on expanding the literary knowledge of us adolescent colonial ratbags and arrived with an agenda of only having American novels in our reading list for 1976.

One of those novels was “Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger.  I can’t really remember what other books I read during my High School years, yet I have never forgotten “Catcher”; probably because we spent what seemed an interminable length of time discussing it’s themes and emotional issues.  Emotional issues?  What strange Yank lingo is this…  Geez, do we have to keep talking about this bloody book!

“Holden Caulfield is a pain in the arse Miss“, the class wag opined. 

“He comes across as a real whinger Miss”, a voice from the back chimed in.

We then had to explain to Miss what a ‘whinger’ was….and then teach her how to pronounce it like an Aussie.

Miss Vickrey would have been used to teaching high school students who wanted to go to college.  Students who had a plan.  Students who were investing in their future.  Students who had great expectations and I suspect it may have been a culture-shock for her that not many of us had college/university studies in our sights – nor were we encouraged to think about going to uni by our cash-strapped, working-class parents.

Most students in the 70s would leave at the conclusion of Year 10 to take up trade apprenticeships, the rest would go on to complete Year 11 to gain a ‘Leaving Certificate’ for white-collar office-based occupations, while only a few stragglers (the brainy nerds) went on to complete Year 12 to gain a high enough grade to meet university-entrance criteria.  Many failed on the first attempt. 

Things are very different now, however, Catcher in the Rye remains a perennial inclusion on Australian Year 12 reading lists.  Hmm….yet I, and my classmates, read it in Year 10 and if not for Miss Vickrey, our Yank English teacher, we may never have gone on to read it. Ever. 

We did not know in 1976 about the controversy surrounding Catcher in the Rye, that it had been banned and I will never know if Miss Vickrey had to go to bat with our School Principal to teach it to us. Or if coming to Australia as an exchange teacher gave her the first opportunity to include it in a reading list for High School students.

Nor do I know if Miss Vickrey ever worked us out.  On my mid-year report, she was quite complimentary:………..writing skills are very good. She can write an almost perfect paper now’.

I may have peaked in 1976.

Right now the Australian media is focused on the mysterious disappearance of multi-millionare businessman, Herman Rockefeller, and has been for days.  So it was rather amazing, considering the media feeding frenzy surrounding this devastating event for Herman’s family, that the media found time to report that J.D. Salinger has shuffled off this mortal coil at the grand old age of 91.

I do find it a touching synchronicity that J.D. Salinger has passed over only a few days after the 251st anniversary of Robbie Burn’s birthday, considering that a wee ditty Rabbie wrote is the touchstone of Salinger’s best-remembered and most read literary work. 

Books are the bees which carry the quickening pollen

 from one to another mind.

~James Russell Lowell

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3 comments

  1. I too read Catcher in the Rye when I was young. It was a good book. In fact, I think I read it twice. But in all honesty, I never understood why it had such cult status.


  2. Maybe because the geeks have inherited the earth? *wicked grin*


  3. I also never understood what its claim to notoriety was. Our entire high school reading syllabus was based entirely around themes of racism and segregation, not to mention that “Catcher” was on the banned book list courtesy of the Old Garde. When I did finally get hold of a copy, I was expecting to be thrilled! titillated! shocked! But it was still a good book. I wish I could have read it at a more impressionable age 🙂



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