Monday, July 7, 2008

The Lennon-Chapman-Salinger Connection

Since I'm starting Salinger's Catcher in the Rye this week in my summer school class, I thought I'd share with my English teacher brethren a can't-miss Catcher activity.

(Of course, I say this fully aware that "can't-miss" activities can, in fact, miss and frequently do. The same home-run lesson from Period 2 can stink up the joint Period 5. It happens. Still, this activity has legs. And, if you're not an English teacher but you are an aficionado of pop-culture, keep reading: I got some decent nuggets in here, in case you're at a cocktail party or on Jeopardy.)

I kick off this multimedia bonanza of a lesson by showing the students that famous Annie Liebowitz picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Don't know which one I mean? Well...

If you can put it up on a big screen, that's great. If not, just kick it old school and walk around the room with a copy of it.

Now, I don't identify the people at first but instead ask the students if they've ever seen the picture before. Probably at least one student in the group knows it's John Lennon and Yoko Ono, but maybe not. (Keep in mind: I've only taught this lesson to sophomores, many of whom are not steeped in Beatles lore, sad to say. Even kids who have heard the name "John Lennon" can't always link it back to the Beatles.)

Next, I ask them to analyze the photograph as a "text." What's going on in this picture? Naturally, the first thing they notice is, "Ewwww. The guy's naked." OK, let's go with that: not only is he naked, but he's in the fetal position. Why is that significant? Well, he's depicted as a child.

From there, we brainstorm about what it means to be a child. What qualities are associated with childhood? They'll probably say "innocence" without much prompting. See if you can get them to talk about "dependence" and "helplessness" and "idealism" as well.

Now you can move on to the other person in the picture, John's wife Yoko Ono. In the picture, she comes off as cold, distant, and unfeeling. He's kissing her, and she's looking away. If he's the "child" in the picture, then she is definitely pictured as the jaded "adult." (As it turns out, this "reading" of the picture actually fits the public perception of John and Yoko's marriage.)

Interestingly enough, the themes inherent in this picture show up throughout Lennon's career. Next up, Multimedia Bonanza, Part II: I play for them the Beatles song "Help!"

Now, you have to understand this about "Help!": Lennon and McCartney wrote this in 1965, when the Beatles were at the height of their popularity. They were the biggest band in the histroy of music. (Remember the "more popular than Jesus" line?) And yet, at this moment of extraordinary success, Lennon writes this song asking, quite blatantly, for "help." He's feeling down, he's not not so self-assured. And to bring it back to the picture, you could say his call for help is almost child-like.

Next, we move into John's solo career as I play for them "Imagine." For our purposes, "Imagine" works even more effectively than "Help!" in that the lyrics absolutely reveal a child-like view of the world. He talks about how the "world can live as one," in one global "brotherhood" and how we need to get rid of the things that divide us ("no religion" and "no possessions.")

You could say John's a dreamer, sure, but he's offering up an innocent and idealistic vision of the way the world could be. (Depending on the class, you could connect the song to other examples of utopian literature, such as Ovid's description of the "Golden Age.")

This is sort of an aside, but in 1999, a company started making baby clothes, bedding, and even mobiles based on pictures John drew for his son Sean. (The mobile even plays "Imagine.") Just another connection back to the idea of child-like innocence.

Let's re-group. We have the two songs that reinforce themes such as innocence, idealism, and dependence. Then we bring the students back to the Liebowitz picture, with the innocent man-child John juxtaposed with the jaded adult Yoko. Now, I hit them with this question: How is your reading of the picture affected if I tell you that this picture was taken the very day Lennon was assassinated?

It's true: Annie Liebowitz took this picture after lunch on December 8, 1980. Later than night, at about 10:50, Lennon was shot in front of his apartment, the Dakota, by a pudgy, baby-faced, 25-year-old former security guard named Mark David Chapman.

Chapman actually got Lennon's autograph earlier that day. Then he waited outside Lennon's apartment for him to come home.

After he shot Lennon five times (twice in the back, twice in the shoulder, one bullet missed), Chapman allegedly sat down on the sidewalk under a lantern, took out a book, and started reading. And that book was Catcher in the Rye.

Allegedly, Mark David Chapman read the book when he was 18 and the book eventually eventually inspred him to kill John Lennon. But why? What is it about the book that made him do it? Who knows? But one possible motive is that Chapman saw Lennon as a "phony." After all, here's a guy (Lennon) who sang about "no possessions," but he's a $150 million businessman. He talked about the world living as one, but he couldn't keep his own family together. he preached peace, but he was prone to fits of rage.

Salinger's Holden Caulfield hates "phonies," and maybe Chapman did as well. Perhaps Chapman saw Lennon as a "phony" who needs to be removed.

Of course, this is all conjecture. All we know is that inside the front cover of the copy of Catcher that Chapman had with him on December 8, 1980, were these four words: "This is my statement."

After you tell them the story, you need to bring it back to the idea of "innocence." The fact that the picture was taken the exact same day that he was assassinated is symbolic, I feel. It suggests that the innocence represented in that picture cannot last. As Robert Frost said, "nothing gold can stay."

Now, I started this post by calling this a "can't-miss" activity, and you have to admit, there's a lot of juicy stuff going on here: you have a visual text; you have music; you have a mysterious story about an assassination. If that doesn't get the students hooked into reading Catcher in the Rye, I don't know what else I can do. Plus, along the way, you've tricked them into doing some textual analysis. And you taught these young whippersnappers a little bit about the Beatles. Everyone's a winner.

Two more things:

(1) Later, as a follow-up to this activity, you can play Elton John's "Empty Garden," which is about Lennon's assassination. The song's a great vehicle to teach metaphor.

(2) After I tell them about Mark David Chapman, I try to say that the novel can affect people in positive ways as well. I know for a fact that Catcher has a lot to do with my being an English teacher. In the summer before my junior in high school, I read Catcher for the first time, and I remember thinking it was unlike any other book I had ever read up until that point. And I think the initial inspiration that I could teach literature for a living started there. (I guess that's a positive thing. You'll have to ask my students, I suppose.)

So, that's it: the "Lennon-Chapman-Liebowitz" introduction to Catcher in the Rye. Try it out, my English teacher brethren. Let me know what you think.


rebecca said...

If Riley had been a boy, her name would have been Holden. I just didn't feel like pulling a Demi/Bruce.

Crow said...

Media bonanza - excellent. Take it from me, kiddies love their media.