Photo Credit: By Samuel Hollyer (1826-1919) of a daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison (1818-1902)(original lost). (Morgan Library & Museum) [Public domain]
My love for Walt Whitman began in my freshman year of college. I lugged around a tattered copy of Leaves of Grass, and my impressions of Walt Whitman speaking to me then are so clear that I remember him as another English major, like me, or maybe a theater major, like all of my friends. It seems that he met us underneath the Tree of Knowledge after class, just like those other misfits, grunge kids and dramatic types who tend to meld together given the opportunity. I can kind of laugh now at our engagement with both hacky sacks and plans to bust the hierarchy. In the early 1990s, when Love, Simon and Walt Whitman's sexuality would have felt revolutionary, we bolstered ourselves with lines like, “I have learned that to be with those I like is enough,” and “I exist, as I am, and that is enough.” You have to give us some slack on our melodrama, but we were in a Catholic college and spent our days reading, writing and creating, so we felt entitled to our whimsy and occasional subversiveness. Meeting Walt Whitman was an awakening of identity in me that has shaped the course of my adult life. I swore then that I would see myself as enough, no matter the circumstance, and that I’d see others that way too—enough, no matter their religious, sexual or political preferences. Later, as a teacher, it became my mission to help all students see that they are enough, no matter.
Flash-forward to yesterday. It’s 25 years later, and I am both dramatically different, and exactly the same (“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I contain multitudes.”) My daughter Zoey, an actual teenager in a matter of days, is by my side because we couldn’t wait to see Love, Simon, a coming of age/coming out story that had me hooked with the first glimpse of Katherine Langford of 13 Reasons Why fame. As we watched, I realized that my promise to myself so many years ago to be enough, and to help others to see that they are too, is probably my actual life’s work, not teaching. Teaching is just the vehicle for the journey. When Zoey and I were both in tears as Simon sorted through his very public existential crisis, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Simon and Walt, my old friend. This, of course, got me thinking about ways I could incorporate poetry during April, both National Poetry Month and, for me, lots-of-state-assessments month. I don’t have time for a poetry unit per se, but I’m thinking of making a display of quotes from Love, Simon that I can then line up with parallel Whitman quotes. Here are a few that might capture the attention and imagination of my middle level kiddos, helping them to know that they are enough.
I can pique my students’ interest in poetry in a way that won’t suck the fun out of reading it or standardize their experience in any way. (I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how teachers ruin reading, which I discuss in “Creating Independent Readers,” a magazine column I wrote for the Association for Middle Level Education). As I drew the parallels, I realized that it would be a great activity for my students to create a chart, such as the one above, relating something we are reading to something they currently are reading/watching/experiencing. By sharing in their lives, I am not only saying their experiences are enough, I’m allowing them the space to find their value in an authentic way, which is exactly what I think Walt Whitman would want— for them and for me.