What is the importance of Holden's confrontation with Mr. Spencer?
In chapter 1, Holden visits his teacher Mr. Spencer and has an uncomfortable conversation regarding his performance in school, future goals, and life trajectory. Holden visits his teacher after he receives notice that he will be expelled from Pencey Prep. Holden indicates that he likes Mr. Spencer and respectfully decides to say his final goodbyes to his favorite teacher. Once their conversation begins, Mr. Spencer attempts give Holden a typical adult lecture regarding the importance of taking life seriously and applying oneself. Mr. Spencer compares life to a game and says that one must play according to the rules. Holden thinks to himself,
Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it's a game, all right--I'll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren't any hot-shots, then what's a game about it? Nothing. No game" (Salinger 5)
Mr. Spencer then proceeds to discuss Holden's history essay as Holden begins to daydream about where the ducks go in Central Park during the winter. Mr. Spencer then asks Holden a series of questions regarding his thoughts on flunking out of Pencey and what his plans are for the future. Despite Mr. Spencer's concern, Holden feels uncomfortable and makes up a lie to leave his teacher's home. Holden's conversation with Mr. Spencer is significant and characterizes him as an unconcerned, irritated teenager, who could care less about flunking out of Pencey. Holden realizes that Mr. Spencer genuinely cares about him, but Holden shows no concern for his future or well-being. He is simply going through the motions during the conversation with Mr. Spencer and cannot wait for it to end. Holden tells Mr. Spencer what he wants to hear in order to end the conversation, which illustrates that Holden has already received several lectures from concerned adults in the past. Overall, Holden's reaction to Mr. Spencer's lecture portrays his indifference towards education and society's standards.
In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden decides to skip the big game in order to go visit Mr. Spencer, his former history teacher who has written to him requesting to see him before he goes home. Holden has been expelled from Pencey Prep due to failing four subjects and not applying himself, and Mr. Spencer brings up Holden's near departure.
Mr. Spencer tells Holden, "Life is a game that one plays according to the rules," which Holden dislikes tremendously. After some polite conversation about how "grand" Holden's parents are, Mr. Spencer demands to know what's wrong with Holden, grills him on his failure, and reads Holden's own term paper aloud to him. Mr. Spencer asserts that he's trying to help Holden by putting some sense into his head, but Holden dismisses these attempts as well, convinced that he'll be just fine.
This conversation is significant because it shows that there are adults who are invested in Holden's success, but that Holden himself is not interested in it. Mr. Spencer may not understand Holden's exact worldview, but does want to see Holden succeed in a world that demands that young people grow up. Holden can't seem to understand his good intentions, which speaks to the dominating sense of alienation that the boy feels. In Holden's mind, Mr. Spencer serves as just one more of the countless adults who disappoint him.
Mr. Spencer is the only adult that Holden admits to actually liking. He respects Spencer to the point that he goes out of his way to stop and see Mr. Spencer before leaving. Holden is extremely (!!) disappointed when his final conversation with Mr. Spencer is a standard adult lecture, one of the things Holden is running away from. What, exactly, Holden was expecting to get out of this conversation is questionable, but he certainly didn't want to be told the same stuff everyone else was telling him. This conversation with Mr. Spencer is a microscope example of Holden's life in general. He wants everyone to be as different as he is, especially his role models, but he's learning that the adult world just doesn't work that way.