My students bristle at Whitman. He is impatient with half measures—with neuters and geldings—and requires an energy to match his own. His vigorous brio closes out students who want to be warmly welcomed and gently convinced, who want to ease their way into passion. He seeks co-revolutionaries and equal conspirators.
Or they protest, “Let me decide what I want to be reminded about life!” Their revolutions must come from their minds and their lives. They will not borrow another’s equipment, nor will they stand accused of a lack. They feel as if they are the fugitives, stymied in their efforts to plot and conspire by voices as large as Whitman’s—or mine.
There are other ways to get at life. “There must be,” I tell myself. I am not convinced. I ask my students what matters in their lives, and they are meek by comparison, even in their protest. They want another hour in the morning, to wear shorts on days that the temperature is above 60, and a shorter wait at the Chic-fil-A. They are still so young and have lived so comfortably. Their revolutions mirror that life.
I become not just a mentor but a fomentor. I stir by example, by a determined and calculated program of dissent and misdirection. There is a gong to be rung, and the dull ring cuts through the ease of the day. After all, I do not want them to have to face the sudden shock of cruelty that cancels out their glorious careless days. That shock waits ruthlessly.
Is that what it takes? Why can’t they simply follow the poet into the fray, to become athletes and askers? “I discover myself on a verge of the usual mistake.” They will take that step when life requires it of them, when they, and not I—or even the poet—beg them to join the play that is no play. They will learn what they need to learn of this world as they live in the world. Like Whitman, I am a reminder of life; they must live.
Let them bristle. They will remember when they need.