I've always liked good old curmudgeonly Thoreau and his Walden. I've used the book in American Lit for years and years and years, and always loved reading it over again.
But this year--just now--I told myself that I've never loved it quite as much as I do right now, and that's why I'm not looking forward to tomorrow. After almost forty years of teaching, I'm tired of lugging something like Thoreau's long and glorious meditation into a classroom, only to see petrified emotions, bored faces, eyes glazed over. I can't handle looking around and seeing that clearly not one of them has read it--I mean really read it. Thoreau, I'm thinking, may well be beyond them--and I don't mean intellectually. My students are smart enough to understand it, but that grand book moves so incredibly slow to an MTV-wired psyche that I just don't know if anything within it registers.
Listen to this, from "Sounds." Here, Thoreau is talking about that blasted Fitchburg Railroad, just one hundred yards from his makeshift cabin: "They [trains] go and come with such regularity and precision, and their whistle can be heard so far, that the farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well-conducted institution regulates a whole country." Thoreau hates clocks too. Anyway, then this: "Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented? Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office?"
It's the late 1840s, and Henry David is actually explaining my own students. Walden is too slow for them because technology has snipped our collective attention span. Everything in their world runs in nano-seconds. I don't think they get Walden--in part, because the media world in which they thrive has affected their perceptions. Call him Henry David McLuhan--the medium is the message, and he was saying that a century and a half ago.
But I'm on contract, so tomorrow I'll lug Walden into class, and once again look into bland, vacant faces and totally spent eyes. So rather than admit how much they don't know, I'll yak away the hour, fill up the time myself, and die a slow and painful death as their eyes move, time and time again, toward the very clock Thoreau hated for regimenting our existence. That hatred they might just understand, imprisoned as they are in American Lit. Maybe I ought to start there.
Geesh, makes me tired.
But I was saying that this year, I really love Thoreau.
Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal
simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself. I have been as sincere a worshipper of Aurora as the Greeks. I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did. They say that characters were engraven on the bathing tub of King Tching Thang to this effect: "Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and forever again." I can understand that. Morning brings back the heroic ages. [from "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For"]
Isn't that grand? Can you blame me?
But all of that joy only increases the pain. Tonight, I really love him more than I ever did; tomorrow, in class, their dreaded boredom will bloody me once again.
Teaching, we're told, begins with passion: you better love your material. But the other side to that equation is that, too often, as a lover I'm totally unrequited. And that ain't fun.
Whatever happens tomorrow, tonight was a joy, reading through him again. Maybe if we skip class, come here to my house tomorrow night, wait in silence and darkness out front--maybe, just maybe, if we're lucky, our ancient maples will come alive with the plaintive sound of one of the darling little hoots who've taken up residence in the branches; and maybe then, at that moment, the music in the air, my students would at least know why I love that single line from "Sounds": "I rejoice that there are owls."
Maybe. Maybe not.
The really great stuff you can never read enough, I guess.
I made a t-shirt I'm wearing tomorrow to class. This is it.
Maybe that'll help.
Hey, "if a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer."
Ta-dum. Ta-dum. Ta-dum.
I don't care. I rejoice that there's a Walden.