Hester Prynne at the pillory with daughter Pearl, an engraved illustration from an 1878 edition of The Scarlet Letter and was engraved by A. V. S. Anthony.

Can a book change a life?

Our 10th grade English class was deep into The Scarlet Letter, a classic by Nathanial Hawthorne. I was mesmerized, not only by the writing and the story, but also by its symbolism. Hester Prynne carried her shame on her chest every day, the bright red letter A, which identified her as an adulterer. She stood at the pillory having to hold her beloved daughter Pearl in her arms, with her shame emblazoned on her chest for all to see.

Awake To Symbolism
My teacher, Mrs. Frances Clute, and her husband John were friends of my parents and she knew me well.

One day, after class, Mrs. Clute asked me to stay a little longer. As the rest of my classmates dashed out the door for Mr. Kennedy’s world history class, she pulled out a small book from one of her desk drawers.

“This is Catcher in the Rye, Marilyn,” Mrs. Clute told me. “I know how much you love The Scarlet Letter. This is also a book that deals with symbolism. I am giving it to you with your promise not to share it with any of your classmates.”

I was grateful for her trust. Even if I knew nothing about J. D. Salinger’s 1951 classic, I knew she trusted me and saw in me the enthusiasm and the intelligence to handle its content and meaning.

I probably read it all that night, the whole story of Holden Caulfield, his depression, his flight from his private school, and his trip to New York. I read how he wanted to save his sister Phoebe from any dangers that she would experience. I “got” the meaning of the “catcher in the rye,” the person who wanted to always protect those whom he loved.

Behind The Words
I also saw why Mrs. Clute had been furtive in her gift. The book had language that was certainly not in books usually selected by Keeseville Central School. I don’t remember if it contained the “F” word, but it had other language and actions that were certainly not broadcast in our small upstate New York town. What made it great was the symbolism, the depth of the story behind the words.

I had already decided that I would be a teacher. After reading Salinger’s classic, however, I knew that I wanted to be an English teacher. I would spend my college years reading other classics, and then I would go on to teach others to love literature as much as I did.  I followed that dream.

About A Whale?
Looking back, I realize how shallow my understanding and appreciation of great literature was in college. There are classics that I read and hated, Moby Dick is probably the most memorable. (I had to read it in one week. It was about a whale.)

In my first teaching job, I was assigned to share Brave New World, 1984, and Night with juniors and seniors in our school in a small town near Albany. I realized that not only did they not understand the books’ meanings, but most of them couldn’t even read. I had been a last minute replacement for a man who decided in June to pursue his doctorate, and all the students had signed up to be in “The Cool Class” with the “Cool Teacher.” I was not the “Cool Teacher.”

Revisiting Old Friends
In the years that followed, I have tried and failed to read other classics, including Les Miserables, Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and One Hundred Years of Solitude. I have missed the depth in so many books.

As I have every year, I have those four books on my “To Read” list. I probably will never get to them, preferring the New York Times best sellers and ones recommended by my bookish friends. But maybe, in honor of Mrs. Clute, I will take my copies of Catcher in the Rye and The Scarlet Letter down from my shelf. I will revisit my friendship with Holden Caulfield and Hester Prynne.

And, even though I know I have still a great deal to learn about literature and symbolism and the classics, I will accept that Mrs. Clute recognized that I had that spark in me. And for that I will be forever grateful.

Marilyn Shapiro, formerly of Clifton Park, is now a resident of Kissimmee, Fla. A second compilation of her articles printed in The Jewish World has been published. Tikkun Olam now joins There Goes My Heart. Shapiro’s blog is theregoesmyheart.me.