Walden

Some days I feel like the reason I teach is so that I get to talk about books and ideas that I love. This is why getting to pick my own reading list means the world to me.

Today we read Walden, or selections from it. Mostly from the chapters called “Where I lived, and what I lived for,” and “Solitude.” Reviewing the writing to prepare to teach it, I just kind of swooned inside. It is so deeply hopeful. It expects so much of humanity. It makes me feel like a better person, empowered to rise to the challenge. Walden has meant a lot to me ever since I read it in Professor Reigelman’s American Literature class, and then again in Professor Manheim’s Reaching Toward Concord: American Romanticism class. We were lucky enough to get to travel as a class to Concord and Walden Pond in fall 2005, where we added stones to Thoreau’s cairn and read aloud in the morning chill.

The archaic language and the obscure metaphors frustrate my students to no end, but usually once I explain the ideas behind the writing they can get behind it. No teenager likes conformity. There is something very appealing about Thoreau’s idiosyncratic, boldly stated beliefs, and  the more the students understand them, the more they like him.

I taunt my after-lunch-sleepy students with this quote: “To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face? We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.” Thoreau challenges us to be more fully aware, to engage actively with the world around us, to focus on an inspiring vision of the future.  My students aren’t the only ones who need to rise to this challenge; like Thoreau, I doubt I’ve met anyone who meets it completely, and am sure that I fall short myself. We talk about having high expectations for our students; it is even more important that everyone have high expectations of her- or himself and of life. After all, Thoreau says, “In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.”

I love to use a teenager’s favorite possession, a car, to explain this quote: “men have become the tools of their tools.” It usually goes like this:

“Who has a car?” Hands up. “Ok, what bills do you have with your car?”

“Auto loan.”

“Insurance.”

“Gas.”

“Changing oil and stuff. Maintenance.”

“All right, and how do you pay for those bills?”

“Get a job.”

“So you get a job to pay for the car. And the car drives you to the job and the job pays for the gas to fill the car. You work so that you can have the car so that you can drive to work. After you pay the bills for the car, how much is left?”

“Not much.”

“Less than half.”

“So you do more work for the car than it does for you. The car is not just a tool for you, it is your reason for working, maybe even your reason for being. So, really: do you own the car, or does the car own you?”

Profound silence. It sounds like the death of materialism. Their lives have been changed.

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