Adolescence. What an intriguing term. The journey from childhood to adulthood. A period often associated with finding oneself. The pilgrimage to maturity. Adolescence has been the subject of many books, and every year a new roster of increasingly shallow teen movies is released. At the center of this journey, though, arises a conflict within the human heart. The voyagers have to decide how long and how rigorously they should hold onto childhood and learn how to find their niche in adulthood.
J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye traces through a brief and violent chapter of the journey of adolescence for protagonist/antagonist Holden Caulfield who after being expelled from yet another private school flees to New York City for a time of binging and debauchery. However, through all of Caulfield’s recklessness, he struggles with the longing of simpler times: childhood and innocence.
After sneaking into his parent’s apartment in the middle of the night, Caulfield shares with his kid sister that what he really wants to do is to be a guardian over playing children protecting them from falling over a cliff, a scenario he misunderstood from a popular song of the time. He wants to help children from growing up and facing adulthood.
I feel that in American culture, the period of adolescence is becoming increasingly elongated. No one is really expected to be a mature human being by the time they graduate high school (I surely was not), and I wonder if that was the case a hundred years ago. Truthfully, many people have no notion of growing up until after four to seven years of college and maybe even a few years after that.
I am not suggesting that a person needs to be ready for the independence and responsibility of holding a job or having a family by the time they graduate high school, but I do feel that there are a number of people trapped in a lost state somewhere between a child and an adult. As a professor, I see many of these people just waiting… waiting for what I am not sure… the next step in life I guess.
A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in a chapel service at Belhaven University where a couple of parents were sharing about the tragic suicide of their son. About halfway through the service, the boy’s name (I say boy, but he was about 21 or so) leaped out at me. I had taught this boy as a graduate assistant at Ole Miss, and the feeling struck me like a dagger.
I remember how well-spoken and polite he was. He always had a good attitude, and though not the greatest Calculus student, I always enjoyed being around him. The only thing I know about his death is that he felt his mind was destroyed by drugs, and could not see a road back to normalcy. It may very well be unrelated, but hearing this while reading The Catcher in the Rye, I could not help but think that there was a correlation between the distractions along the pathway to adulthood and his dark pathway of drugs. I am sure he wished, as Caulfield had, he could return to his days of innocence.
Please do not misread my thoughts. Adolescence can be a great time in a person’s life. I had a blast. I got an education, met life long friends, met my wife, along with other wonderful (some not so great) experiences. Adolescence can be a great time to develop values, convictions, visions of the future, etc. However, what I hope to invest into my students is that though high school and college can be a time to thrive socially, the goal is to exit prepared to contribute as an adult. I see The Catcher in the Rye as a warning to those who want to drift… those who delay searching for their purpose.
I am being a little critical in a sense. I know that many people struggle to find their suitable careers and future spouses. I know that, and that is fine. If that is you, I encourage you to not look back to the glory days of childhood. Avoid being a Holden Caulfield. Instead be eager and willing to search for your purpose and your future.
Pages: 214 FOA Pages: 15,046 (Total number of pages reported upon by the Friends of Atticus)
A great resource to help develop leadership in adolescence is the website GrowingLeaders.com led by Dr. Tim Elmore.
A lot of what I am saying can be clarified through one of the greatest movie-speeches of all time from “You, Me, and Dupree”.