Many teachers begin their careers with images of themselves as sages of wisdom that will lead their students to self-actualization. Granted that some teachers do achieve this status, and most have moments that fall into this category, a typical school year is a bit less romantic than young educators imagine it could be. I experienced this humbling moment during my second year of teaching when I decided to share the transcendental wonder of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and was met with blank stares and indifference. I envisioned my students walking out of class with a brand new, fresh view of the world, yet the impact was paltry. Has Whitman not stood up to the test of time? Do his free-thinking words not resonate with "Generation Z"?
"Song of Myself" is the first poem in Leaves of Grass and is arguably the most popular. I taught a portion of this poem (the first, second, and last stanzas) as part of a project in an honors class. Students read three poems and three short stories, and then had to choose one to examine further. None of the students chose "Song of Myself."
The opening lines "I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you" are engrained in the minds of many as a declaration of togetherness for the human race. At first, there is not much for students to get discouraged about with the poem. The initial lines are straight-forward and positive: we are one. As the work progresses, however, it begins to become contradictory towards the values of society.
The poem's speaker describes a simple but powerful observation. The verse reads, "I loafe and invite my soul, / I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass," which evokes a meditative appreciation of the world around him. This idea of loafing starkly contrasts the always-on mindset of current times, which yearns for immediate gratification and constant distraction. Arguably, teenagers are more enveloped in this mindset than anyone else, which could make it difficult for them to find appreciation in "loafing" (or so one might think).
Whitman later describes "creeds and schools in abeyance, / Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten," which is a challenge to abandon the academic, formal learning places of society (at least temporarily) to take in the natural world. Similarly to the previous section, these lines go against what students are taught to do in school. In fact, it goes against what I asked my class to do with this very poem.
A rudimentary examination of the first stanza reveals a glaring issue with having students dissect this poem: Whitman does not want them to. He wants the reader to abandon the conventions of academia and let the words flow over them. In fact, Whitman is explicit about this in the second stanza when he writes, "Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much? / Have you practis’d so long to learn to read? / Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?" His sarcasm is biting; what is the point of examining poems when the real world has not been experienced? Herein lies the trap that I fell into when I taught this poem.
My goal was to have the students appreciate the world in the way Whitman did: to slow down, take in their natural surroundings, and see what is truly important. Unfortunately, I decided to do this using every method Whitman chides in his work. My class was forced to read and examine "Song of Myself," and by design it failed. The issue is not that the current generation is incapable of appreciating Whitman, but his points are not meant to be made in a classroom.
Robin Williams' character in the 1989 film Dead Poet's Society is synonymous with bringing Whitman into the classroom. Williams' John Keating inspires his students by reading "O Me! O Life!" and "O Captain! My Captain!" with much success. As idyllic as this scenario is, Keating is fully embracing Whitman's philosophies; as such, he is not very concerned with learning standards, PARCC scores, and grades in general. The modern teacher, generally, does not have the luxury of sharing a work with students for them to simply consume, enjoy, and evoke inspiration. Especially in a climate of forcefully stressing the necessity of college for students, Walt Whitman is counterintuitive. But, as anyone familiar with "Song of Myself" knows, Whitman is already aware: "Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)"
There is no easy solution to instilling the knowledge of Whitman to younger generations. This is not because "Generation Z" is lazy, obsessed with technology, or incapable of close reading: it is because "Song of Myself" is not meant to be force-fed and scrutinized. Students can certainly be introduced to Whitman, but the organic discovery of his sentiments is a large portion of what makes his work endearing. Whitman described the nature of his work best: "I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, / I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world."