I recently heard that one of my old students fell into a conversation in which my name was brought up. Apparently, he really split everyone’s sides by recalling, “Ms. Moncrief totally has an unhealthy obsession with Walt Whitman!” And that was all he remembered, and all he had to say of the eighth grade.
This child was one of my brighter darlings, with a mind and a mouth faster than mine—and most of his peers. He was frantic and quick-witted. (Once when I turned my back, he threw his shoe at me; it landed on my desk and his face went white. He said in the most adult and caring way, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s come over me.”)
Something other than the smart-alecky tone of this response got to me. You always hear that teachers who follow their passions are the best teachers. But this makes me wonder. When I taught this guy, I was obsessed with Whitman, I suppose it’s true. These kids were a young thirteen and I assigned them to read the whole of Leaves of Grass. That’s 52 poems and over 30 pages in our Norton anthology. I photocopied every poem and made each student his or her own packet! We memorized many of the poems, we wrote Songs of Ourselves! We played, “What would Whitman do?” What was I thinking?! AND, I never told them about Whitman’s homosexuality, because I figured it wasn’t that important for them to know. (I am not sure what my logic was there. They figured it out themselves. How you ask? Well, does this give it away for an 8th grade boy?
The beards of the young men glisten'd with wet it ran from their long hair, Little streams pass'd all over their bodies. An unseen hand also pass'd over their bodies, It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs. The young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge to the sun, they do not ask who seizes fast to them, They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch, They do not think whom they souse with spray.
I fear I ruined Whitman for them. I fear I was like one of those gift giver types—hovering over you as you open a gift, smiling down at you with an open mouth, ready to gasp and clap and say, “Isn’t it just great? I mean, isn’t it perfect?!” My own joy of reading got in the way of letting others have joy too. That seemed like a beautiful failure. “The mystic anomalous nights, the strange half welcome pangs, (and) visions” that I had in discovering Whitman maybe need to be my own private meditation. As for my old student—he’s off to China, nearly fluent in Mandarin. I heard of him that he’s “settled down,” but hope he hasn’t really settled down. And, well, at least he forgot all my other unhealthy obsessions.