He started going into this nodding routine. You never saw anybody nod as much in your life as old Spencer did. You never knew if he was nodding a lot because he was thinking and all, or just because he was a nice old guy that didn’t know his ass from his elbow.
In Chapter 2, Holden notes that his history teacher, Mr. Spencer, nods a lot when he’s listening to other people talk. Although Holden’s language shows that he has respect for Mr. Spencer (“he was a nice old guy”), it also reveals his characteristically critical nature (he “didn’t know his ass from his elbow”). Part of Holden’s frustration may stem from his sense that Mr. Spencer is not really listening. This suspicion places Mr. Spencer among the many other people—especially adults—Holden considers phony.
“Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.”
Mr. Spencer addresses these words to Holden in Chapter 2. Mr. Spencer’s words represent the perspective of an adult who has come to terms with the need for rules and the necessity of respecting those rules. This is a sensible perspective to which Holden outwardly assents, but which he internally rejects: “Game, my ass.” The reason Holden ultimately rejects Mr. Spencer’s perspective on rules may have to do with a deeper resentment at being told what to think. Mr. Spencer never rationally explains his view of life as a game, and as a result Holden refuses to buy into it.
“I flunked you in history because you knew absolutely nothing.”
During their discussion in Chapter 2, Mr. Spencer tells Holden flat out why he gave him a failing grade. On the one hand, Mr. Spencer’s frankness may demonstrate a certain level of respect for Holden. On the other hand, Mr. Spencer’s tone borders on scolding, and his words are clearly meant to put Holden in his place. Even though he plays it cool throughout this scene, Holden feels humiliated, which suggests that Mr. Spencer ultimately fails in his attempt to use frankness to help Holden learn a lesson.