The Friday Poem ‘An Old Man’s Thought of School’ by Walt Whitman

It’s been a difficult time for those who go to work as teachers in America. Many are on strike, not just for a living wage, but for supplies and improvements to the physical spaces that foster learning. Many have faced threats and continue to teach in the aftermath of mass shootings.

Pundits are fond of quoting Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” The Friday Poem this week is ‘An Old Man’s Thought of School’ by Walt Whitman reminds us that we have always struggled with the value of education in our society.

The poem was written three years after the New Jersey State Legislature passed ‘An Act to Make Free the Public Schools of the State’, providing free access to public schools “to all persons over five and under eighteen years of age.”

In 1874 poet  was recovering from a stroke at his brother’s home in Camden, N.J. At a public school dedication in early November he challenged his fellow citizens of the post-Civil War era:

“And you, America,
Cast you the real reckoning for your present?
The lights and shadows of your future, good or evil?

To girlhood, boyhood look—the teacher and the school.”

An Old Man’s Thought of School

An old man’s thought of school,
An old man gathering youthful memories and blooms that youth itself cannot.

Now only do I know you.
O fair auroral skies – O morning dew upon the grass!

And these I see, these sparkling eyes,
These stores of mystic meaning, these young lives,
Building, equipping, like a fleet of ships, immortal ships!
Soon to sail out over the measureless seas,
On the Soul’s voyage.

Only a lot of boys and girls?
Only the tiresome spelling, writing, ciphering classes?
Only a public school?

Ah! more, infinitely more;
(As George Fox rais’d his warning cry, “Is it this pile of brick and mortar, these
dead floors, windows, rails, you call the church?
Why this is not the church at all—the church is living, ever living souls.”)

And you, America,
Cast you the real reckoning for your present?
The lights and shadows of your future, good or evil?
This Union multiform, with all its dazzling hopes and terrible fears?
Look deeper, nearer, earlier far—provide ahead—counsel in time;
Not to your verdicts of election days—not to your voters look,
To girlhood, boyhood look—the teacher and the school.

Walt Whitman   New York Daily Graphic, November 3, 1874

“Recited personally by the author Saturday afternoon, October 31, at the inauguration of the fine new Cooper Public School, Camden, New Jersey.”

Photo: Cooper Public School, Camden, N.J. circa 1910

 

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