There’s a line in Walt Whitman’s poem “An Old Man’s Thought of School” that hits home for me as a principal who blogs. He describes “an old man gathering youthful memories and blooms that youth itself cannot.”
Like other poets before him, Whitman looks at childhood and childhood education through middle aged eyes. From this perspective he finds the beauty of learning and the “stores of mystic meaning” in the eyes of the students.
That the pupils in Whitman’s imagined school might see “only the tiresome spelling, writing, ciphering classes” doesn’t stop the poet from recognizing that, just as the church was once described not as a “pile of brick and mortar” but as “living, ever living souls,” so too the school is made up not of lessons or desks or buildings, but of the people who populate it, the instructors and students, the living souls who teach and learn.
How true this is today, just as it was when Whitman penned the lines in 1874. The gift that is education comes not from any of the objects one might purchase, then a slate, now a chromebook, nor any of the initiatives that reflect the current zeitgeist, but from the connections students make with each other and those who teach them.
Whitman ends his poem with two questions and an answer, lines worth reflecting on beneath today’s summer sun:
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.”
As a principal well past his own schooldays, I see in the students at my school great opportunities and amazing support. I watch them, class by class, choice by choice, create their own present realities and paint their diverse futures with all they experience, all they attempt, and all they achieve, and I see those experiences of building “mystic meaning” happen here at school.