Imagine December 1980 and the junior English class at CK McClatchy High School (Sacramento, CA). I can. I was the student teacher for this course. After having prodded the depths of Jonathan Edwards and Washington Irving, we had moved on to Walt Whitman. What could I impart to a bunch of 17 year old students? I was wondering this myself.
The required reading was Whitman’s elegiac tribute to Lincoln: When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.
I introduced this reading and did my best to explain the depth of feeling Whitman had for Lincoln and the concentrated national focus on Lincoln’s assassination and overall pallor of mourning.
I recalled my own impressions regarding JFK’s assassination and funeral as a very young child. I could remember where I was, what the funeral coverage on TV was, etc. It was a moment frozen in time.
I asked: did my students have any memories of a significant figure’s demise during their lifetime?
No. Not one did.
It was at this point that I realized that there was more than just a couple years distance separating me from my students. The JFK event marked me for a different generation than they were. . . I was of their parents’ generation.
“Well,” I remember concluding my lesson on December 7, “perhaps there will be an event in your lifetime when this will happen to you, and you will remember where you were, when you heard, how you felt. Then, you will be able to understand more fully what Walt Whitman was talking about when he wrote this poem.”
The next day, John Lennon was murdered.
It was on all the news, no one could miss it. We were in shock.
The following day, I brought two albums to high school for my teaching: the Beatles Abbey Road and John and Yoko’s Double Fantasy (which I had just bought thanks to my subscription to Columbia Records).
I put the records on the turntable that I had checked out from AV. (Believe me, this took a huge amount of effort—physically and emotionally: “Why do you need it just for 2 hours? We can’t take it up the stairs, you’ll have to do it; this is a last minute request and we require 5 days notice.” Argghhhhh, thank God I was young.)
On the chalkboard I wrote: Homework for Walt Whitman: listen to John Lennon.
We sat for 50 minutes every class and listened to the albums. These were the quietest classes I ever taught. I recall looking out from my desk at these students, in years not so much younger who earlier had seemed a lifetime away.
However, now they could understand tragedy that was larger than they were, and now they had the patience to read Whitman, now they could be open to understand metaphor, now they could appreciate how soulful a poem could be, how it could go under your emotions and touch the nerve, and why poets seek to expose this nerve. For high school students, this is actually a pretty weird concept. And frankly, it probably would take years to set in.
For a long time, I viewed this whole experience as a coming of age marker for my students. What I failed to recognize immediately was the similarity between Whitman and Lennon. (Yeah, they share the same zodiac sign.) Their intense focus on the pleasures of humanity and their bold engagement with the political arena were similar. Both opposed to war, they chose to use their influence differently. Both loved the common people, celebrated the everyday activities of working folks, and reveled in the intimacy of man and woman.
One take-away from Lennon and Whitman is that you don’t need to aspire to lofty ideals. Your being is all you need (All You Need is Love).
As a postscript, Walt ends one of his poems with the following lines. Frankly, this could be the end to something John wrote also:
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles…
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
And John ends one of his last songs with the following lines that Walt would have liked as well:
Every man has a woman who loves him
If he finds her in this life time
He will know.