Meet Mrs. Watkins

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap . . .”

If you know American literature, you don’t need me to tell you that you’ve just read the opening lines of Catcher in the Rye, a deceptively simple coming-of-age novel narrated by literature’s most emblematic teenage malcontent: Holden Caulfield. When I was seventeen, the same age as Holden at the time the story takes place, I fancied myself the modern-day embodiment of everything Salinger’s anguished protagonist represents—restlessness, rebellion, and the yearning for something authentic in a world of lies and hypocrisy. Sounds pretty “emo,” right? It was.

Now, more than a decade later, many voices have taken Holden’s place. As I’ve traveled, met new people, read ferociously, and ventured beyond the solipsistic trappings of my youth, I’ve come to see the world in a more hospitable light. The voices that resonate with me now are still wry, but in a playful way (think Twain with a dash of Oscar Wilde).

The one constant amid all the throes of identity excavation has been literature—words, language, ideas, and voices—the love of which drove me, at age twenty-two, to pack my belongings and leave on a solitary journey to Scotland where I knew nary a soul. I lived and studied there for two years alongside others who felt as strongly about the books I loved as I did. Crazy? Perhaps. But it was exactly as nerdy and magnificent as you’re imagining.

The same love of literature which has been the dominating force of my existence is what drives my commitment to teaching. The fact that I have a job that consists of waking up every day and sharing my life’s passion with other human beings is nothing short of miraculous. I get to be master of ceremonies for the greatest of all initiations. Where is there room for cynicism and melancholy in such a fortuitous arrangement? On that thought, I leave you with these lines from the poet Mark Strand:

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.