photo & text by nacrowe
in the fall of 1998 i entered my freshman year of high school at a BOARDING SCHOOL in MASSACHUSETTS. the previous three years i spent living and going to school in NIGERIA, where my parents relocated for work and were still living at the time. before AFRICA, i grew up in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. its funny to look back on everything now, but arguably the CULTURE SHOCK of attending a BOARDING SCHOOL was a bigger DISRUPTION to my system than moving to AFRICA. for all of its cultural and political differences with the CALIFORNIA, NIGERIA was really not that different. sure you had to adjust to things like overt corruption when dealing with the police and reduced access to clear water and electricity, but really life in AFRICA was a variation on a theme.
BOARDING SCHOOL, however, was another beast entirely. it was an OPAQUE system filled with UNSPOKEN POWER HIERARCHIES and agreements. i found this period to be incredibly CONFUSING and still do to this day, especially given how it later fed into an equally mysterious college system that favored the BYZANTINE influence structures of the elite.
which brings me to J.D. SALINGER's THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (LITTLE, BROWN & CO, 1951), a novel seemingly everyone has read in high school. funny enough, this was one of a dozen books i was assigned to read the summer before freshman year. it was a funny choice: a book about a kid who hates the PHONINESS of BOARDING SCHOOL that was being read by a kid about to enter an elite BOARDING SCHOOL.
i had a hard time identifying with HOLDEN CAULFIELD. i couldnt figure out the source of his complaints and his gripe with his peers. maybe that was the point. maybe he was like MARLON BRANDO's character in THE WILD ONE stating "what have you got" when asked what he was rebelling against. maybe he is a cypher for youthful rebellion in general, unable to verbalize or locate his anger within the context of a COMPLICATED ADULT WORLD he is about to enter. i got that sort of existential dread, as i was soon to be leaving my parents a hemisphere away, but not the ANGER. not that sense of projection of FEAR and SELF-LOATHING misdirected at his peers.
as i stated before, my original context of reading this book was within the confines of living and attending a BOARDING SCHOOL. as a primer to that experience, i didnt share his reaction. his fictional experience was that of a PRIMAL SCREAM directed outwards. mine was completely internal. the unrelenting competitiveness, the arcane rituals, the unspoken agreements, the double standards all led me to doubt myself. i entered a fish out of water and i left equally unsure of my place. i remember an older student in my dorm was busted for selling PCP on campus, but was quietly reinstated after a brief suspension, his father after all was a famous businessman from NEW ENGLAND and a soap magnate. i guess they wouldnt want to sour his reputation with public knowledge of his son's extracurricular activities. to make it worse the school had the father give a speech soon after about the business implications of BUDDHIST precepts surrounding the NOBLE EIGHTFOLD PATH. it was the height of hypocrisy. i could go on. a 'C' student was one of a handful that got into YALE UNIVERSITY, his father being a corporate lawyer in the auto industry.
it was all CONFUSING and UNJUST. it was a great entry point into the real world. for me THE CATCHER IN THE RYE is about that moment when childhood ends and one becomes numb, jaded and less IDEALISTIC about their place in the world. maybe i wasnt that different from CAULFIELD after all.