When I made the announcement in 1984 to my American Literature class that Henry Thoreau would visit our class the next day, I was met with various responses:
“A real author? How did you get him to come?”
“Yeah, I’ll bet.”
“Did you tell the newspaper?”
“According to our book, he’s dead.”
My students were preparing to investigate Thoreau’s writings, having just studied Hawthorne and Emerson. They had learned of Emerson’s life by my telling them about it; they had learned of Hawthorne’s background through the autobiographical sketch in the book. Now it would be our privilege to have Thoreau visit our twentieth century classroom in person to present his own story.
During the first part of the class on the day of his arrival, we tended to other matters as I advised the class that Mr. Thoreau generally would not make his appearance until about half way through the class. During that time, there were some unbelieving individuals, but their protestations were at least partially dispelled by my insistence that he was coming. He had promised.
As the time for his appearance approached, I discussed with the class their behavior and my expectations of them. I assured them of Mr. Thoreau’s willingness to answer questions and to be informative which would help them with their next study which was a selection entitled “Walden Pond.”
Finally, when it was time for his arrival, I dismissed myself in order to allow him to take over. Walking up from the back of the room where he had mysteriously appeared, he greeted the students enthusiastically, and they reciprocated warmly. Thoreau was about five, ten and one-half. He was dressed in contemporary clothing. In fact, he was dressed very much like myself except that he was not wearing eyeglasses and sported a pith helmet with T-O-U-R-I-S-T written across the brim.
Immediately he launched into his story identifying with the problems of youth. “In my earlier days, I was accused of setting fire to the woods near home.” He continued, telling of his experiences as a school teacher and of his excursion into the world of pencil-making with his father. By now some of the students were lifting their hands to inquire, but he urged them kindly to await the end of his presentation. Now he entered into the reasons for his venture into the woods of Walden. He was very serious, as were his listeners. “I went to the woods to face life, that I might not find that, when life was over, I had
not lived at all.” Thoreau’s voice was strong, belying his advanced years.
As he approached the end of his lecture, he advised, “If a man hears the beat of a different drummer, let him march to the beat he hears…” The students were enthralled and appeared to be willing to listen to more, but he indicated he had finished and offered to answer questions. Spotting a hand over on the left, he addressed the questioner as “Sir.”
“Why did you leave the woods?”
“I knew I had been there too long when I saw that I had worn a path between my cabin and my garden. I had become too consistent,” he replied, appearing to relish the opportunity to justify his philosophy.
Another hand was raised. “Mr. Thoreau, you spent two and one-half years in the woods. Do we have to do something like that to establish ourselves as individuals?”
“No, young lady,” he responded. “I had to do what I had to do. You must do what you have to do. I had to go to the woods; Emerson had to go against his family’s wishes; Hawthorne had to risk leaving the shelter of his home in order to establish a life for himself. The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. Don’t you do that! Live life simply and deliberately.”
“How long have you been dead?” was the next question.
“Why, I think I shall live forever,” responded Thoreau, smiling so as not to demean his interrogator. “Thank you for having me visit your room. I am honored that you would be interested in hearing about me and my friends, Waldo and Nathaniel. Oh, by the way,” he whispered confidentially, “Waldo Emerson visited me in jail one time when I wouldn’t pay a poll tax, and I scolded him for being on the outside instead of on the inside with me,” They believed him for he had let them inside.
Graciously thanking the class for their attentiveness, he departed, and I returned to determine the impact his visit had made. It was one of incredulous belief. The class and I both were much richer for having lifted a moment out of time to be with Henry David Thoreau. As we wrapped up the discussion in preparation for the reading assignment, one of the students disappointedly admitted, “But I meant to get his autograph.”
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