The First Fourth of July in Montrose, Pennsylvania

Over the past few months, I’ve delved deeper into the history of Montrose, Pennsylvania, than ever before. I’ve always been interested in writing about places, and for a long time, this small town where I live has provided plenty of inspiration. One of my writing projects has been a collection of poems about Montrose that I’ve finally decided to publish, and of course, that’s when doubt really starts to creep into my thoughts. Here I am, writing about my adopted hometown, but what did I really know? I had the overwhelming feeling that I was only skimming along the surface. I’d written about a few notable people and specific places, even a poem about our Fourth of July celebration, but I needed more details, more history. So now, several months later, having scrutinized old maps, read old newspapers, and seen hundreds of old photographs, I’m rediscovering the place I’ve called home for the past fifteen years.

Published in 1873, Emily Blackman’s History of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania contains a wealth of information, including much about the founding of Montrose. She’s considered to be the area’s first historian, so naturally, I’ve been reading her book, scanning the index and picking relevant topics. One story that stands out, especially at the beginning of this month, recalls the first Fourth of July celebration, only a short year after Captain Bartlet Hinds built a small log cabin that became the town’s first settlement in 1800.

Just like our modern fireworks, these early settlers wanted something grandiose, something with a great boom. If we take Blackman at her words, Captain Hinds must have been a clever woodsman, besides a soldier. Hoping to recreate the fusillade of cannon fire, Hinds felled thirteen trees in quick succession, choosing trees and notching them in such a way to fall like dominoes. Has anyone ever heard of such a feat? The noise must have been marvelous, as each tree crashed into the next and into the next on down the line. As the boom resounded in the woods, and the last tree fell to the ground, I can only imagine the few settlers gathered about clapping and cheering such a spectacular show.

Felling of the Trees by Colleen Caterson
Felling of the Trees by Colleen Caterson (from Montrose Through the Years, 1976)

Somewhere off in the woods nearby at least one other person heard the flurry of the captain’s wooden cannons. Reportedly, Jason Torrey, while out surveying land, followed the great boom to its source and soon discovered the little party in the midst of their merry making. They gave him food and drink, and according to Blackman, Captain Hinds offered up a toast on the nation’s birthday, saying, “The United States! May their fertile soil yield olive for peace, laurel for victory, and hemp for treason!”

Although we can’t give credit to Hinds for composing these words, as this was a familiar toast at the time, his fighting spirit is certainly embodied in them. Hinds was a soldier, after all, having fought for liberty or death against the British. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote The Declaration of Independence, was the newly inaugurated President of the United States in 1801, and George Washington had only died a couple years earlier.

So goes the first of many celebrations in The Hinds Settlement, later renamed Montrose, Pennsylvania. While researching the details of this event, I did come across at least one person who asked, Why thirteen trees? Indeed, I don’t want to take anything for granted, so let us remember the thirteen stripes on our flag represent the original thirteen colonies who banded together to fight for independence. By the day Hinds brought thirteen trees crashing to the ground, the number of states in the union had grown to sixteen, but thirteen had already become sacred. So strange, that today, we associate the number with bad luck and trouble. It seems to me, however, that Captain Hinds most certainly had those original colonies in mind when planning his “fireworks” for the Fourth of July.

It’s interesting to note, too, that one of the mottos of our new nation, e pluribus unum—a Latin phrase meaning “out of many, one”—was even comprised of thirteen letters. As an English teacher and student of language, I’ve always found this detail about the motto fascinating, but the phrase becomes even more poignant as I think about the beginnings of Montrose taking shape. When the Hinds family and Jason Torrey came together, they were parts that joined as one to create something greater, much like our country, much like our small town, much like our annual celebration, and much like those thirteen trees, so many years ago, crashing together into one great echoing sound heard deep in the woods.

All of this makes me reflect on things that bring us closer, that pull us together rather than apart. The Fourth of July in our town, unlike many of our other holidays, is unique in that respect. Whether we gather along the parade route, visit the vendors on The Green, or sit together to watch the fireworks at the end of the day, we celebrate together. My parents, for instance, will travel two hours to be here. Many others are coming from much farther to visit close friends and family, often using this event to return to their roots. It’s estimated that our town swells to nearly 20,000 people on this one day of the year. Although they will not hear the thunderous roar of those thirteen trees described by Emily Blackman in her book, it’s clear that our tradition of bringing people together, especially in Montrose, is still strong.

From Mordor to Montrose and Back Again

Maps have always fascinated me. As a kid, I remember scrutinizing Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth for what seemed like hours, tracing the path to the Lonely Mountain and Mordor. When I made a recent trip to Walden Pond with my creative writing class in April, the only thing I was adamant about purchasing was a copy of Thoreau’s survey of the pond from 1846. I guess it doesn’t matter if they’re fictional or real, but there’s something about maps that I appreciate as a writer. Maybe it’s because maps communicate something that’s so hard to put into words. That sense of direction, distance, depth—those relationships that maps allow us to glean more readily than words.

In the past few months, I’ve been researching Susquehanna County and Montrose, Pennsylvania, where I currently reside. Besides documents and pictures, the old maps tell a story all their own. For example, the Map of Susquehanna Co. from the Actual Survey by G. M. Hopkins, 1858, is a large color map of the county including street layouts of the major towns. The framed copy in the Susquehanna County Historical Society in Montrose is especially ragged, the wear emphasizing its age at over 150 years. Like Tolkien’s maps included with his stories, the hand drawn nature of this map captures my attention, but there’s another thing that’s taken some time to really grasp.

Detail from the Map of Susquehanna County by G. M. Hopkins, 1858

The artist for the Hopkins map rendered the buildings along the streets as tiny dark squares of varying size and shape, labeling many of them with their owners and even plot boundaries. Why does this make any difference? For me, it’s because there’s just enough room in the details for the imagination to do its work. Unlike Google Maps, where the fascination lies in seeing an actual image of your house on the screen, and how many of us haven’t done that, this map leads me to wonder about all those dark boxes, lines, and labels. In the end, the map requires a certain amount of mental work to read the story with the limited details.

That said, this map is even more special because of the vignettes along the margins that provide a glimpse of life back then. For instance, there are four drawings of Montrose, including the newly built Court House, only three years old at the time. There’s also a drawing of a snowstorm on April 21, 1857, that dumped over three feet of snow in Montrose, which must have been quite remarkable to have been commemorated on this map. It’s the only event on the map, as the other vignettes are buildings or landmarks such as the Starrucca Viaduct.

Another large map hanging in the Historical Society is titled Map of the Borough of Montrose, Susquehanna Co. Pennsylvania, Surveyed and Drawn by Philip Nunan. Published in 1853, this map also has vignettes, mostly of residences around town. The streets seem to be the real focus of the map, however, and a careful study reveals some significant changes over time. The original scheme was a grid, which the map readily communicates. But some streets, compared to the present, are almost completely gone. Take Pine Street, for instance, near the county courthouse. Only three houses still remain on this short street that I always thought so awkwardly placed, but the Nunan map shows this street used to run all the way down to Church Street and beyond, and parallel to Spruce, which makes much more sense to me now. Not to mention that two evergreen names were placed side by side, something that never occurred to me until studying the map.

Like Pine, Beech Street also had some major changes, because the Nunan map marks it as a long straight street whereas the street now takes a meandering route through the area just south of Church Street and Tannery Place. In some cases, the streets have even flip-flopped names, as appears to be the case with Chestnut and Cherry. And this is where the maps fall a little short, because they don’t reveal the reason for the changes, but simply record them over the years. I know, for instance, that Montrose suffered some devastating fires, and I’m wondering if some of these changes weren’t made on the heels of these major fires. It’s something to consider when studying the history of the town.

Many people are familiar with the panoramic maps of Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler, who signed them simply T. M. Fowler. These birds-eye maps may be the ultimate treasure in capturing the history of many towns in Pennsylvania at the turn of the century. Each one is a meticulous study of a town, drawn with three dimensional buildings that are remarkable in detail and accuracy. When thinking about the Hopkins map I described earlier, these maps are the antithesis, recording the town with such facsimile that someone can’t be but overcome with awe, and I know that several of my local friends have the map of Montrose from 1890 hanging in their houses. Fowler drew 426 of these, and of those, 248 were towns in Pennsylvania. Until recently, however, I didn’t know that the Library of Congress has these maps available online, and the tools provided at the website allow you to zoom in very close and see the drawings in greater detail than ever before.

Some may also be familiar with the Susquehanna County Atlas of 1872 published by Frederick W. Beers. Unfortunately, the Library of Congress doesn’t have that map available yet, but there are other places online where it can be viewed such as the website Historic Map Works, which provides tools very similar to the Library of Congress. The atlas is beautiful, too, but not nearly as fascinating as the Fowler maps, and of course, it doesn’t have any of the vignettes included with the other maps mentioned. Each of these maps probably served their purpose, and like I said earlier, maps get at something beyond words, allowing us to grasp a larger, fuller picture than words can provide, but they also serve, at least as I’ve found, to stir the imagination, to make me wonder and seek answers. Taken together, the maps create an intriguing picture of my hometown through the decades, a map of its journey so to speak, that certainly rivals the maps of Middle Earth that I stared at again and again so long ago while reading The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

To Walt Whitman, On His 200th Birthday

Although Edgar Allan Poe may have written the most famous American poem, “The Raven,” it’s Walt Whitman, The Father of Free Verse and The Good Gray Poet, who claims the top spot as our most important poet. Born on May 31, 1819, he became a national treasure by the time of his death, though criticism of his book of poetry, Leaves of Grass, remained mixed.  Thirty years after first publishing the book, Whitman, in fact, wrote that its reception remained “worse than a failure.”  But that’s expected for trailblazers and revolutionaries, and naturally, many of this ilk don’t receive their due until after they’re dead.  It took the world time to appreciate Whitman, but here we are, and to celebrate his 200th birthday, I offer some places where Whitman continues to speak to us.

Pen Drawing of Walt Whitman by Kerr Eby

For an English teacher like me, the 1989 film Dead Poets Society earns one of the top spots. My favorite scene is when Mr. Keating, the teacher played by Robin Williams, makes Todd Anderson yawp in front of the class.  For those of you who haven’t seen the film, Ethan Hawke’s character, Todd, is supposed to write a poem for English, but comes to class empty handed, and instead of simply moving on to another student, Mr. Keating rallies him, running to the chalkboard to write, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”  It’s one of my favorite lines by Whitman, coming at the end of his epic poem “Song of Myself” and only after about seventy-five pages of poetry.  It’s only fitting that this line earned a prominent role in the film.  The scene continues, when Mr. Keating calls Todd to the front of the class to “yawp,” goading him until he finally barks out a good one. Eventually, Todd improvises a poem in front of the class, under the tutelage of the teacher, and completes the assignment to much applause from his peers.  Sure, it might be a bit contrived, but for any English teacher, it’s also a bit of wish fulfillment.

Like Mr. Keating, Levi Strauss & Company has also paid their respects to Whitman.  It’s interesting, too, that Levi’s jeans and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass were contemporaries, their birthdays dating back to 1853 and 1855, respectively.  No wonder then, that the company, chose an advertising campaign, led by Wieden + Kennedy, who has done ad work for Nike too, that paired a recording of Walt Whitman, supposedly from the 1890s, with their jeans.  Even though many scholars believe the recording to be a hoax, the result, directed by Cary Fukunaga and first aired in July 2009, is a beautiful piece of cinematography where the advertising and the product for that matter, fade into the background to allow Whitman’s poetry—the theme of American democracy—to take front and center. 

Furthermore, in a moment of genius, Fukunaga even accounted for the hiss and scratchiness heard in this antique recording by repurposing the noise as a burning fuse to an explosion, or better yet, a firework. I’ve read in at least one source that the ad premiered on July 4th, making this detail even more befitting to the topic. And the bonus, Levi’s advertising campaign distributed Whitman’s voice to a mass audience that probably would have never bothered to listen to this recording.  And even if it’s not truly an authentic recording, the words remain Whitman’s.  The voice, too, sounds to me like Whitman’s should, which is perhaps why it may not actually be authentic.  Nevertheless, it’s something I show my students every year, and the poem’s imagery and style serves as an interesting contrast to many other poems by Whitman.

Finally, it’s hard to write about Whitman without mentioning another one of my favorite teacher dramas, Breaking Bad. Indeed, the AMC series about a chemistry teacher mixing up the best methamphetamine is all about breaking the rules much like Whitman’s poetry. By far, I think this is my favorite TV drama, better than The Wire, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Dexter—many series that I devoted so much time to watching. Maybe it’s because Walt Whitman and  Leaves of Grass take on a role in the show.  Even the name of the show’s main character, Walter White, is eerily reminiscent of Walt Whitman, so much so, that I have often wondered if the writers had the plot worked out so far down the line to include that connection four seasons later to that infamous copy of Leaves of Grass, gifted to Walter White by his diligent assistant, Gale.  Even “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” which was referenced directly in Breaking Bad’s plot, recounts a narrator walking away from a classroom to reap the benefits of firsthand experience.  It’s just so wonderful, so apropos, to the series that I can’t help but “look up in perfect silence” while watching the storyline unfold.  

So there you have it, some of the places where Whitman persists, despite calling his book a failed experiment. It’s been interesting, at least to me, to research many of the details that I often discuss with my students, but haven’t completely fact checked over the years.  Of course, an article of this nature requires a proper conclusion, so I’ll leave you with one more detail from my research. For many years, I’ve had the hint, the remembrance, of a directive given by Walt Whitman about reading his poetry.  In writing this article, I discovered that directive in the Preface to the 1855 Edition of Leaves of Grass, which is a kind of manifesto on poetry.  In later editions, the Preface was cut from the book, but in the first edition, Whitman advises us “to read these leaves in the open air in every season of every year.”  I like it, that advice, because poetry is sometimes sterile, confined to the pages of a book, the walls of a classroom, and if lucky, maybe the audience at a coffee house.  How wonderful to think of it, instead, mingling with nature, the clouds floating overhead and the green grass under our feet.  No, I’ve never done it, but perhaps this year, I’ll finally take my copy of Leaves outside, read a few poems aloud, and celebrate Whitman’s birthday.

On the Occasion of Poetry

I’ve done a tremendous amount of writing in the past four months, much more than in the previous few years combined. I often go through spurts, starts and stops, devoting time to writing lyrics for a song or turning my attention to a poem or two. Sometimes I’ll give an assignment to my students, and because I like to model the work, I’ll find myself suddenly transported, deep in thought, churning out a little rhyming poem or a series of haiku.

Over the years, I’ve come to love the poetry units I teach, maybe more than anything else during the school year, and I often culminate them with assignments to write similar poetry. In a world where analytical writing is so privileged, I also want my students to do something more creative, more expressive, more emotional. And with regard to my own writing, I’ve found myself working more and more in the world of poetry, alongside these blog posts, of course.

Certainly, circumstance plays a role, providing the occasion for poetry. For example, just before Christmas, I made a connection with a colleague, someone I’d seen off and on in my building, who I was obliged to speak to now and then, and really nothing more. But by chance, we struck up a conversation about books and discovered a mutual fondness for Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. I have long loved this book, and of the many novels written by Kingsolver, including The Poisonwood Bible, it’s Prodigal Summer that moved me the most. That served as an appropriate introduction, and I’m happy to call Tracey a friend now.

More importantly, however, is Tracey’s love of poetry. She’s been writing for a long time, working seriously as a poet. Having quickly developed some trust, I sent her a collection of poems I’ve been working up to get her opinion, and likewise, she shared her published book of poetry, Storm Farmer, with me. Soon we were in business. She came as a guest to my creative writing class to lead a lesson on mimicking the work of other poets. My students, who recently collected some of their work in a little chapbook, many of them selected the poem written from that class activity. Of course, I wrote a poem, too, and the occasion, her presence and interaction with my students, fueled my writing.

Poetry is often about timing. We wait around for the right inspiration, something that moves us so that we can’t help but try to capture it on the white whale in front of us, whether it be the computer screen or the blank pages of a notebook, but poetry is as much about inspiration as the circumstances that arise, or that we make, in our daily lives. Perhaps, that’s why I admire those writers who show such discipline by writing day after day, good or bad. They approach writing like a day job, rather than the stereotypical artist, moved by the moment or the muse.

John Grisham, author of so many novels, is famous for this kind of resolve. While writing his first novel, A Time to Kill, he committed himself to writing every morning for three years, day after day, as he continued to work as a lawyer. It’s a habit he’s continued, even after becoming a bestselling writer, which allows him to publish a novel almost every year.

Likewise, Jason Isbell, recent Grammy winning songwriter and guitarist, has spoken about approaching his craft in a similar fashion. After being tossed out of the Drive-By Truckers and finally getting sober, he worried about ability, about inspiration. Did he have what it takes to make music while clean? However, he found that alcohol and excess was only an excuse, and that his best writing has come from the discipline of sitting with a guitar, working with lyrics and melodies, in a more disciplined way. Like Grisham, he also sets aside time to write, and in interviews, he often states that he doesn’t believe in writer’s block.

Nevertheless, circumstances, whether manufactured or random, have helped renew my poetry habit. At the grocery store, a few weeks ago, I happened upon my artist friend and gallery owner. Betty told me that her new gallery was set to open the following weekend with a space dedicated to a local artist, Joe Welden. As it turns out, I’d already written a poem about Joe, having been a fan of his art and purchasing a painting by him several years ago. At her invitation then, I read my poem at the dedication ceremony. In my opening remarks, I said, “This is the right place and the right audience for this poem, ” and truly, I couldn’t have found a better time to read the poem in all my life, surrounded by Joe’s artwork, in a space named for him, in the company of his family and friends. I couldn’t have asked for a better reception, a better place to release the poem into the world.

That moment, nevertheless, was relatively short—the event lasting a few hours, the reading only a few minutes. But the event provided good motivation, reminding me that poetry is a worthwhile pursuit. That those countless hours revising a single line again and again until it sounds just right, and then doing it again the next day, the same line, returning to the former phrasing because, after twenty-four hours, it was a mistake after all. That time, that mental energy—that’s worth something. It’s easy sometimes to say it’s pointless or selfish, that I’m wasting my time and energy. It’s easy to judge ourselves not worthy of the pursuit. But that’s the triumph of any artistic endeavor, and especially creative writing, that someone makes the occasion for poetry. We say, yes, this deserves my attention, and then we write, whether it’s a novel, a song, or a poem.

Painting by Joe Welden
Joe Welden

Jazz Artist
by Aaron Sinkovich

Like any ordinary cup of coffee, our Joe Welden
could easily be passed over for something more robust,
but there’s a world teeming inside him, a fresh, rich pot
brewed with jazz and full of folks always giving him the slip—
musicians, saxophones blowing notes and singers singing songs,
a rhythm running through his figures like his fingers over a keyboard.

Almost anything can serve as Joe’s canvas—
napkins, crumpled newspaper, salvaged windows and ceiling tiles,
something with texture, an up and down, a rhythm or chord progression,
laying down a beat like the rat-tat-tat of a snare, the ting-tinging of a cymbal
until you feel it under your feet, the people moving with Geppetto’s music,
at block parties, city bars, along hot streets lined with tall buildings—
drinking in life with secret arrangements to run away before daylight.

Instead of three musicians, he painted four for me—
I swear it’s The Bird, Benny, Miles, and Ella
who slipped away this time, —Could you really blame them?
refusing to lay down their instruments,
racing away to another gig, another stage, another audience
to play notes, like Joe’s brush strokes, that can never be pinned down.

And don’t bother these folks with “professional framing”—
exact measurements, perfect right angles, smooth polished finishes,
that’s too square, like playing the notes straight time;
much better to improvise, to use what’s at hand, let the beats swing
so the song is never played the same way twice—
that’s Joe’s signature, Joe’s art, Joe’s jazz.

Lessons from The Black Snake

While some English teachers shy away from it, I love poetry. Every year I teach two of my favorites, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. I never lose interest in them, and while teaching, of course, I become the student, too, seeing these poets and their work through the eyes of my high schoolers. I practice beginner’s mind, according to Zen, coming back to these poems with a fresh perspective that deepens my understanding.

Most recently, I’ve come back to Mary Oliver’s “The Black Snake,” a poem included my textbook for English 9. This was my introduction to Oliver, the first poem I ever read by her. When she died this past January, the language and imagery of this poem flooded my thoughts, and rightly so, because it’s a poem about death. Its suddenness. Its terrible weight. Its certain coming. Those are the words, especially, that I couldn’t shake.

a black snake on the road

To summarize, the poem relates finding a dead snake killed in the road by a truck. The poet uses some interesting and ironic imagery, describing the snake as both “beautiful as a dead brother” and “useless as an old bicycle tire.” The speaker, who is moved by the snake’s death, going so far as to place it at the edge of the road, uses the snake to reflect on the nature of death. “Its suddenness. Its terrible weight. Its certain coming.” It’s heavy stuff. But she also writes about that instinct, that something deep inside us, keeping our thoughts of impending death at bay. In the poem, she calls it the “light at the center of every cell.”

When I taught this poem a couple weeks ago, the students seemed captivated. Maybe it was the topic, since the day before we were discussing a rather innocent poem, Vachel Lindsay’s “An Indian Summer Day on the Prairie,” and now we had moved on to something more serious. Or maybe I simply lucked out, chancing upon the right words to draw them into the lesson. I spoke about the likelihood of dying in a car crash versus a plane crash—how driving is probably the most dangerous thing we do—and statistically far and away more dangerous. Yet, we all showed up to school, most likely without giving a second thought to our possible death that morning. And yet again, statistically speaking, there were probably several people who didn’t make it to their destinations and already died that day. But all of us, everyone in the classroom that morning, we safely “crossed the road,” unlike the snake in the poem.

At the time, although my students didn’t know it, my beginner’s mind was in overdrive, because I hadn’t preplanned these remarks. Sure, I had written “discuss the poem” into my lesson plans, but I hadn’t worked out my comments or the connections I wanted to make with my students. It was happening in the moment, as I read the body language of my classroom full of students. At least one student, too, had recently been affected by the sudden death of her grandmother. She had missed an entire week of school, and as I spoke, that consideration twined itself around my thoughts. When I taught the poem in the afternoon class, some of the magic of the earlier class had already faded, because now I had hoped to recreate the script from earlier, expecting a certain outcome that would either fail or succeed. That afternoon class was good, but it was different, having become a more deliberate act by then. The beginner’s mind had passed.

The next day we moved on to more poetry, but the lessons from the black snake don’t end there. This past week, when the Notre Dame cathedral burned, the poem was on my mind again. This time, as a reminder, of the things we often take for granted, the things we assume will be around generation after generation, but then suddenly disappear. The Twin Towers obviously come to mind, but Notre Dame seemed immortal, having been around for so many centuries. It’s easy to assume, like the black snake, that crossing the road, that moving forward, there’s nothing to worry about. But then a fire brings sudden and certain devastation, reminding us once again of the true nature of our world. As Robert Frost has said, nothing gold can stay. That’s the dark reality of the black snake, but the other lesson is that our indomitable spirit, the light at the center of every cell says, no matter that reality, we cannot remain curled up, hidden away from the world. We continue to move forward, and most of us, maybe with a little more caution, always cross the road again.

The Things We Carry

I had just enrolled in the graduate program at The Ohio State University when I read “How to Tell a True War Story” for the first time. The author, Tim O’Brien, was unknown to me, but I found the story, included in the book I’d be using to teach freshman composition, both fascinating and challenging. O’Brien tells the story of Curt Lemon, a Vietnam soldier who steps on a landmine, exploding high into the trees of the jungle. But the story isn’t really about Curt, but rather how the remaining soldiers cope with his death. And the narrator readily admits, the details of the story, well, they aren’t necessarily true, but stretched and edited and even changed to better get at the real truth, which is the feelings these soldiers carried through Vietnam.

Soon I encountered another story also by Tim O’Brien, “On the Rainy River,” anthologized in a book I was hoping to give my students as a supplement to the required reading. Here, O’Brien tells the story of a young man, barely out of high school, who drives to the edge of Canada hoping to dodge the Vietnam draft. It’s a surreal story that gave me chills. By the time I had read The Things They Carried, the novel comprised of woven short stories about Vietnam and the proper place where these two stories reside, I had fallen hard for O’Brien. My final semester teaching freshman composition, I taught the entire novel for the first time.

The Things They Carried Book Cover

Fast forward, almost twenty years. Eventually I knew The Things They Carried would end up in my high school curriculum. When I ordered brand new textbooks a few years back, I was also offered copies of O’Brien’s novel. I jumped at the chance, eager to dive right in, but wary, too, knowing that the subject matter is sometimes graphic and provocative. The stories cover, among many other things, witnessing death for the first time, not living up to your parents’ expectations, and facing the despair that comes with failure. Tough stuff, not only for high school students, but adults, too. O’Brien has said in interviews that he wrote this novel for adults, and he’s surprised so many young people are reading it in their English classes. I’d say, however, that’s where the book belongs. Like the characters in the novel, my students carry so many things, often traumatic and disturbing, that I can’t see.

Reactions to the book have been positive. Having carried this book for a long time now, I’m still intrigued. I’m still trying to make sense of it, noticing again and again its beauty, complexity, and pattern. It has had such an effect on me, so much so that for the past two weeks, I’ve been listening to the book on Audible, mostly while driving back and forth to work. It’s only deepened my love. Last Thursday, while driving the dozen or so miles to soccer practice, I said to my son, who’s a Breaking Bad fan, that’s Bryan Cranston reading the novel. I can’t think of anyone else I would rather hear deliver the novel, and before we had parked the car, Nate had already asked if there was a copy of the book at home.

Next week, my students begin new material, moving on from their study of the novel, but I hope some of them carry it with them longer. Not long ago, I felt fortunate to hear Tim O’Brien give a reading in Binghamton on a rainy Saturday night in March. My wife, who came along with me, found herself captivated by his sincerity. In his remarks about The Things They Carried, he said, “A story helps us to feel and not just to think. It appeals to our whole being, our emotions and our intellect.” With that in mind, as a culminating activity, I assigned my classes the task of writing about something they have carried. It didn’t need to be a physical object, necessarily, but I told them it couldn’t be their phone. In the past, students have written about so many interesting things—a long held depression, the suicide of a close relative, and objects, too, such as a wallet passed down from father to son or a simple smooth stone that touching lightly provides comfort. I’m always surprised by what they share with me, and I’d like to think that reading the novel inspires the courage for students to tell their own stories. It’s my hope, at least, that as O’Brien said, students will see that telling stories helps us feel with a deeper understanding.

Since I always show my students a model essay, here’s mine. Those who have been reading my posts for the past few months will probably recognize some common themes.

The Pen I’ve Carried for Over One Hundred Days

It doesn’t seem like much, but for me it’s a big deal.  I’ve been carrying the same pen around with me for over two marking periods.  Over one hundred days. And no, the pen is nothing special. On the first day of school, before all the students—all of you—arrived, I went to a meeting empty handed, and someone lent me a black plastic pen, which I promptly bogarted upon leaving the meeting.  It was shiny. It had black ink. It had a push-button tip. It felt comfortable. Most importantly, I later realized, it had a clip where I could attach it to my shirt. I think it was a promotional giveaway, too, because it also sports a little PSEA logo, which is the teacher’s state union organization to which almost all teachers belong.

 
Somehow, the pen has stayed with me.  That’s unusual. And we’ve grown quite close.  It may be in my school bag with all the papers I need to grade.  Ugh. Other times it’s in my pants pocket, safely out of sight but right where I need it.  Usually, I clip it to my shirt, and I’ve found I like it there. It’s handy. It makes me feel prepared.  I’m ready to sign my name to that all important pink pass, to write one hundred at the top of a perfect paper, or to copy that ten word vocabulary bellringer assignment. And the clip, the ALMIGHTY CLIP atop the black plastic pen, has made it possible, at least it feels that way. It is the scabbard to my pen sword. When I have that pen clipped to my shirt, I am prepared for battle.


But all joking aside, though, there is an important lesson I’ve taken away from carrying that pen. I’ve always been a teacher that burns through boxes of pens like a wildfire. I typically lose them left and right, hand them out like candy at a parade, and generally buy them in bulk at the beginning of each school year.  But this year, something clicked, and I’ve used almost one pen exclusively; and although I’ve almost lost it a few times, it’s still with me. For me, I guess, it proves that I’m capable of changing something about myself, getting better at something that I failed at, miserably.  It reminds me of that line we read from Thoreau’s Walden, that this may be the year that drowns all your muskrats. Those lost pens, year after year, in a way were some of my muskrats. And yes, there are still other muskrats to be drowned but carrying the pen—weirdly enough—makes me feel better about it all.

Becoming a Transparent Eyeball

Often a good example brings about fresh understanding.  As I wrapped up my teaching of Transcendentalism this year, I had a chance to watch Free Solo, which recently won an Oscar for best documentary.  It was incredible, in the very real sense of the word, but I also found that I had a new reference point for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous metaphor, “I become a transparent eyeball.” 

Some context, first.  In a nutshell, Emerson wanted to build an appreciation for the positive role that nature plays in our lives.  In his essay Nature, Emerson sees the natural world as a restorative force, one freely available to everyone.  He writes about nature making us feel younger and renewing our faith in the world.  It’s easy to take this for granted today, because this seems so obvious, but in 1836, that viewpoint was radical. 

Take the forests of Pennsylvania, for instance.  The whole state of Pennsylvania, Penn’s Woods, was almost entirely covered in trees.  Nearly 29 million acres of virgin forest stood here at one time.  By 1900, about two thirds had been clear-cut, stripped bare right to the ground.  Nature represented a commercial resource.

Emerson fought against that mindset, writing about becoming a “transparent eyeball” in the woods.  This metaphor suggests a deep connection to nature that’s still new for people in the middle of the 1800s, for a transparent eyeball blends into the landscape, becoming one with its surroundings. It’s neither agricultural nor industrial, and the metaphor suggests a kind of harmlessness because the eyeball can’t be seen—it’s “transparent.”  Of course, even calling himself an “eyeball,” suggests that he’s more passive observer than active participant.  He doesn’t go into nature with a chainsaw or the thought of filling an empty wallet, but rather a sense of wonder.

So that brings me to Alex Honnold, the climber at the center of the documentary film Free Solo.  His story is fascinating, in part, because Honnold represents a kind of ultimate observer. He has spent his life climbing mountains. For Honnold, however, the pinnacle of his universe is the free solo, climbing alone without any ropes.  The danger is obscene. Imagine clinging to a bluff 3000 feet above the ground, and any false move, any mistake plummets you to your death.  That’s how Honnold spends much of his time.

After watching Free Solo, I can say that Honnold is not only about taking extreme risks.  He’s about observing something so carefully, so exactly, that the danger dissipates over time.  The movie chronicles his free solo ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, and as I watched the film, I could see his sport was built on keen observation of natural environments.  Indeed, he becomes Emerson’s transparent eyeball.  In his quest, he attends to every single depression, every minute change in the rock face during his climb.  It took him weeks of practice to learn his route up the mountain, to observe every detail along the way, memorizing the holds and body positions to be able to make the climb without the aid of ropes.  And when he finally does it, his connection to the mountain can be seen in his unhesitatingly sure movement to the top. To say awe inspiring is an understatement.

And at the end of the day there’s nothing left behind on the mountain.  It’s clean.  It’s non-destructive.  It’s transparent, like Emerson says, in contrast to those who scale Everest every year, leaving behind all the human signs of their presence.  In Honnold’s world, there are no ladders, no permanent rigging, no air canisters left behind on the mountain.  He’s touching the rock face with his bare hands and pushing his toes into tiny holds overlooked by most of us, and that’s the greatness of his climbing.  He’s able to see something in nature that many of us cannot even imagine.

I sketched the drawing featured with this week’s post. Every year, as my students read excerpts from Emerson’s Nature, I include an assignment where they must illustrate a piece of figurative language and then explain its meaning. My sketch alluded to some classroom happenings, such as one student’s love for fancy shoes and another student’s Walt Whitman test, which I had misplaced for a time. The axe in the stump is from another famous metaphor, the speckled-axe in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, which my students learned about earlier in the year. Like good real life examples, drawings also push us toward deeper meanings.