“How does it feel—emotionally—to be wrong?” Kathryn Schulz asks the audience at her 2011 TED Talk entitled “On Being Wrong.” I show the video to my first-year writing students every semester on the second day of class, after all the awkwardness of having learned each other’s names and majors is over. I like to watch them in this moment—the glow of their upturned faces in the darkened classroom—because what Schulz says next surprises them. They will put down their pens and stop pecking at their phones.
Audience members call out spontaneously—being wrong feels embarrassing, dreadful, bad. Schulz says those are answers to a slightly different question. Those are answers to the question, “What does it feel like to realize you’re wrong?”
The audience nervously laughs, aware they are on the precipice of a reversal. My students watch, silent and serious. They don’t know it, but Schulz is about to drop the overarching theme of my class. “Just being wrong doesn’t feel like anything,” Schulz says. A few moments later, having deployed a funny and apt comparison to a Road Runner and Coyote cartoon, where Coyote runs off a cliff but doesn’t fall until he realizes he has run off the cliff, she pauses to correct herself, saying that actually, “It does feel like something to be wrong; it feels like being right.” I always smile at this part because she’s right. You don’t feel bad when you’re wrong—you feel as though the way you see the world is how the world really is.
What I love is how efficiently Schulz takes a whack at our certainty. My goal in teaching writing to new students is to invite them to move beyond the paint-by-numbers approach often served up in high school. I am not looking for them to tick boxes on a rubric, but to start to think for themselves. What could get us there more quickly than learning to doubt what we take for granted and beginning to make a habit of finding evidence and reasoning to assuage that doubt.
At the least it will humble us, give us pause. The best outcome—for me as a teacher—is that the process of thinking before speaking or writing gives students confidence. I don’t mean the brash confidence of the zealot but rather the steadfast and self-affirming confidence of someone who, when presented with new information or a different point of view, can change their mind. The person who can do that will not only be a better thinker and writer but a better citizen—kinder, more accepting of life’s inevitable complexity, more open to joy, and empowered to get angry and speak out when they see something that is wrong. It’s a tall order for the first-year writing classroom, and I don’t know that I ever truly get there. As Schulz might have me say: I could be wrong. If nothing else, however, I find meaning in the attempt.
Over the semester, I remind students again and again that being wrong feels like being right. Sometimes I say it in response to the opinions they levy. Sometimes I say it about an author whose work we are discussing. Sometimes they point it out to me. It’s part of a shared vocabulary that we establish—in class—a microculture.
The essay where they see it most clearly is Donald Hall’s “A Hundred Thousand Straightened Nails,” which I assign as part of a section on profiles. It’s a famous piece, selected by Joyce Carol Oates for inclusion in The Best American Essays of the Century anthology. One of the reasons I like to teach it is because I teach at a state university in working class central Massachusetts and it’s set in nearby New Hampshire, where many of my students are from. I get to ask them if they recognize the world as he has written it, if it resonates at all with their own experiences. It gets us talking and sharing. Another lesson I try to impart is that personal experience matters when it comes to reading. If you’re going to doubt yourself, you have to first know yourself. You can then take ownership of, and responsibility for, what you think and why.
In the essay, Hall offers us a portrait of his grandfather’s cousin, Washington Woodward, whom Hall knew from childhood summers on his grandparents’ farm. Woodward was a hermit, living alone on a few acres on Ragged Mountain and only rarely ventured into town. He wore the same overalls every day, and for weeks at a time he ate nothing but oatmeal. He built a strange machine to remove big rocks from his pastures. Cantankerous and untrusting of people, he preferred the company of his cows, feeding them apples by hand and sleeping next to them.I remind students again and again: being wrong feels like being right.
According to Hall’s grandfather, Woodward once had an Ox named Old Duke who he taught to shake hands and roll over like a dog. “I loved him,” Hall wrote, “and I could feel his affection for me.” Unlike the relatives Hall admired in the silhouettes and daguerreotypes in his grandmother’s parlor, however—images of an idealized past—Hall described Woodward as “a sign of the dying place.” Hall, who would go on to become the Poet Laureate of the United States, brought the full force of his lyrical skill to bear, writing, “When I thought of the disease that afflicted New Hampshire, I knew that my grandfather’s face was the exception to disease. The face and sickness was the mouth and moving beard, the ingenious futility of Washington Woodward.”
Woodward’s cardinal sin, according to Hall, was best exemplified by the behavior that gives the essay its title. If walking along Woodward found a board with a nail in it, he would remove the nail and bring it home and straighten it on his anvil. He wasn’t trying to save money, Hall reports. He wasn’t a miser. Rather he hated waste to the point of compulsion. And it was the compulsions Woodward embodied that Hall couldn’t tolerate or find the generosity of spirit to understand, that he instead took as evidence of the man’s moral failings. “He had saved nails and wasted life,” Hall laments at the end of the essay. “He had lived alone, but if he was a hermit he was neither religious nor philosophical . . . The life he could recall was not worth recalling; it was a box of string too short to be saved.” If Woodward’s mouth and moving beard was the face of the sickness killing New Hampshire, the disease, according to Hall, was the unexamined life.
As a writer and a teacher of writing, you won’t catch me making an argument in favor of the unexamined life. I believe we owe it to ourselves and others to interrogate our experiences, as best we can, in order to contribute to the building of a community of care. That said, I share the reaction of most of my students to Hall’s essay: They are horrified by the ways the author punches down. Who is Donald Hall, they ask, to decide how Washington Woodward should live? Why does he get to decide what counts as a life worth living?
If Woodward’s life was so worthless, they ask, why did Donald Hall write about it for ten pages? Why is this a “best American” essay?
I play devil’s advocate and ask what the world might look like if we were all like Woodward, loners teaching our oxen to roll over. If we can’t be critical of Woodward’s life and choices, I ask, whose life and choices can we be critical of? I point out that Donald Hall, at least by his own admission, loved Washington Woodward, and that if somebody eviscerated me in writing I would hope it was someone who knew me well enough to love me. I can’t keep the act up for long, though, regardless of how much I relish pushing my students to clearly articulate the flaws in my arguments. Soon I join their critiques and throw in some for my own enjoyment. I ask how many of them know what a poet laureate is or that Donald Hall was one. When no hands go up, I wonder aloud—admittedly, a bit glibly—if perhaps he wasted his life.
Toward the end of our conversation, I will ask the class: What might Hall feel right about while being wrong? This is the kind of question that usually freezes students up, a mistake I make sometimes. They hear that I have something specific in mind and don’t want to chance being wrong (which Schulz rightly points out in her TED Talk we associate with feelings of worthlessness). So I do the thing I hate it when teachers do—I answer my own question. I tell them Hall may have loved Woodward, but it wasn’t clear that he ever really saw him. In the essay, Woodward is portrayed as a freak, a fool. No attempt is made to imagine his inner world. Even the things about him that Hall admires—his affection for his animals, his ability to design and fabricate machines, his hatred of all forms of corruption—are used as evidence in the case against him. “I felt that he was intelligent,” Hall writes, “or it wouldn’t have mattered.” And that innocuous sounding remark in an essay filled with quotable zingers, I tell my students, is the most self-incriminating thing Hall says in the entire piece.Hall’s grotesque caricature of Woodward borders on violence. He literally calls the man “a disease.”
In the suggestion that if Woodward hadn’t been intelligent it wouldn’t have mattered, Hall acknowledges an understanding that Woodward was different, that his way of being in the world and Hall’s own did not line up. For autistic people, and people with OCD or ADHD—which could have included Washington Woodward, given how Hall describes him—this is a common problem. Unable to account for a neurological difference, neurotypical people fall back on unexamined assumptions and judgements. A child experiencing sensory overload, for example, could be seen as having a tantrum or acting out or being manipulative when really they are trying their best to manage their bodies and minds. Hall may not have intended to say as much but the implication of his remark is that unless you share his sensibility you are not living “a life worth recalling” and therefore not worthy of respect.
Hall’s grotesque caricature of Woodward borders on violence. He literally calls the man “a disease.” For an essay ostensibly about the significance of the examined life—an essay that has been celebrated by its inclusion in The Best American Essays of the Century—the cruelty of its own unexamined assumptions is appalling. It is for this reason I want my students—across their range of backgrounds and experiences—to have the wherewithal to doubt themselves, to pause, to take Schulz’s advice and “step outside the tiny, terrified space of rightness and look around at each other at the vastness and complexity and mystery of the universe and be able to say, ‘Wow. I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong.’” Imagine a world where we—you and I—made that a habit.
It’s not possible to retroactively diagnose anyone or ascribe that they are on the autism spectrum. But, as with the case of Washington Woodward and others whose lives are scrutinized on the page, a consideration of the lived experience and characteristics of neurodiversity should at least inform our readings of people and literature. How would it shape our sense of Henry David Thoreau, for example, if we acknowledged that he appears to share many traits associated with people with autism? The character of his writings, as well as how friends and neighbors described his personality, create a compelling argument. Like Woodward, Thoreau heard “a different drummer” and marched to it accordingly, only instead of straightening nails he gathered passing thoughts and hammered them out on the anvil of the page. Where Woodward hated waste, Thoreau hated dishonesty. It’s true that he could be hypocritical and sometimes contradicted himself. Who in their life or in a lifetime of writing could hope to avoid that? Being on the spectrum wouldn’t diminish a person’s capacity for getting things wrong any more than not being on it would. Autistic people, it should go without saying, are people.
In the last few years—online and in print media—bashing Thoreau has become something of a pastime. Garrison Keillor called him a “sorehead.” Bill Bryson called him “inestimably priggish and tiresome.” People on Twitter regularly mock the fact that Thoreau’s mother brought him food and attended to his laundry while he was at Walden, latching onto this detail as evidence that his rugged individualism was built on the back of women’s unacknowledged labor. On this last point, the writer Rebecca Solnit—who knows a thing or two about both Thoreau and what it means to be a feminist—pushed back in an article in Orion, describing the Thoreau family’s relationship to domestic labor as one in which they “reinforced” each other, each offering work on behalf of mutual and egalitarian benefit. As she put it, people “pretended to care who did Thoreau’s laundry as a way of not having to care about Thoreau.” And in relegating Thoreau’s mother to the laundry pile, Thoreau’s critics themselves unwittingly erased her efforts as a conductor on Concord’s underground railroad. “My position now,” Solnit wrote, “is that the Thoreau women took in the filthy laundry of the whole nation, stained with slavery, and pressured Thoreau and Emerson to hang it out in public, as they obediently did.”How would it shape our sense of Henry David Thoreau if we acknowledged that he appears to share many traits associated with people with autism?
The epitome of Thoreau takedown articles appeared in The New Yorker in 2015 under the title “The Moral Judgements of Henry David Thoreau.” In the dek of its online edition, the article asks: “Why, given his hypocrisy, sanctimony, and misanthropy, has Thoreau been so cherished?” What follows is a blistering critique not only of Thoreau’s ideas but of his personhood. He is described as: “cold-eyed,” “narcissistic,” “fanatical about self-control,” “adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world.” It’s an uncanny echo of Hall’s assessment of Woodward. It’s also reminiscent of the labels slapped onto people with autism by an ableist culture. If you don’t understand (or can’t allow for the possibility) that differently minded people take in and process sensory information in unique ways, which in turn shapes their points of view, then your assessment of them will always be based on incomplete information, likely your own sense of how it feels to be a person.
Ironically enough, the New Yorker article making all these assumptions and labeling Thoreau a misanthrope was written by someone who might have known better—Kathryn Schulz. She begins the piece by describing a horrific shipwreck where many men, women, and children died after being swept by a nor’easter into the rocks off Cape Cod. Having heard about the shipwreck Thoreau traveled to see it. And afterward—as was his compulsion—he wrote about it. Schulz, lacking a framework for taking difference into account, shares a quote that from her point of view embodies Thoreau’s callous attitude. “On the whole,” she quotes, “[the shipwreck and the bodies on the beach were] not so impressive a scene as I might have expected. If I had found one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place, it would have affected me more.” From a neurotypical perspective, Thoreau’s assessment is “cold-eyed” indeed.
The problem with the Schulz anecdote, however, is it lacks awareness of its neurotypical bias. In not taking other ways of being into consideration, it assumes that a writer’s thoughts, observations, and pronouncements should match up with what a neurotypical person would think and feel in the same situation. If they don’t match up, who is to blame? In her TED Talk, Schulz talks about this very dynamic, talking about the challenges of what we’re supposed to think when people with the same information as us come up with drastically different conclusions. First, she says, we think they are ignorant. Then we think they are stupid. Then finally we think they are evil. Schulz doesn’t call Thoreau evil, but in describing him as a misanthrope she approaches that territory. It can’t be that Schulz herself is missing information or misunderstanding something, only that something is wrong with Thoreau.
I read his quote differently.
For one, why should he have had to tell us that human loss in a shipwreck was a tragedy? Isn’t that something we could legitimately be expected to understand without his having to make it explicit? If you have to explain that a shipwreck is a tragedy, what else might you have to explain? That the sun is hot? That water is wet? And beyond that, who were the dead to Thoreau? As he said, if he had discovered one body alone in some quiet place it would have affected him more. To see them all together, however, the tragedy took on the shape of an abstraction. That might seem cold but how different is it from when you and I pass a car accident on the highway? We feel a tinge of concern. We rubberneck when passing by. But, more likely, we get irritated by the backup of traffic and feel grateful that it’s not us getting air-lifted to the hospital. A printout of our passing thoughts in moments like that would out us all as monsters.
One of the traits most commonly associated with people on the spectrum is an inability to lie. This fidelity to honesty is complicated by the seemingly arbitrary code of what is and is not socially acceptable to say out loud. Who makes these rules? Where are they written down? If one’s mindedness precludes a person from an intuitive understanding of such things, what does it mean to judge—and police—them when they appear to step out of line? What a neurotypical person might call tact often looks to some people on the spectrum like deceit.
Schulz claims that Thoreau “identified not with the drowned or the bereaved but with the storm.” For those with heightened sensory awareness, however—and Thoreau’s writings reveal him to be just such a person—the world is a storm. His is a storm of flowers, bees, sunlight, wind. His is a storm of inconsistencies, his own and the world’s, because his thinking was not constrained by propriety to good taste but to the truth of what he saw.
Imagine all the ways human beings harm one another and every other species on the planet—imagine the destruction climate change is poised to inflict, hundreds of millions of refugees in coastal cities over the next one hundred years—and now tell me why I should view our human enterprise with more warmth. From the vantage of our present historical moment, a touch of misanthropy seems necessary to be moral.
One of the leading voices of climate change activism is Greta Thunberg, herself on the autism spectrum. “I think in many ways that we autistic are the normal ones,” she says, “and the rest of the people are pretty strange, especially when it comes to the sustainability crisis, where everyone keeps saying climate change is an existential threat and the most important of all, and yet they carry on like before.” If we chide Thoreau for not being more emotionally in tune with the victims of that shipwreck, how do we justify our own seeming indifference to rising sea levels? Are we the true haters of humanity?
I could go through Schulz’s Thoreau essay line by line offering rebuttals and translations and counterpoints. The opening anecdote represents the whole well enough. What I want to take up is what Schulz says at the end of her piece, in part because it so closely aligns with Donald Hall’s blinkered estimation of the value (or lack thereof) of Woodward, and in part because it hurts me to witness a writer and scholar like Schulz, who I so admire, get things so wrong. After her litany of Thoreau’s personal and literary shortcomings, Schulz writes, “He, too, was the victim of a kind of shipwreck—for reasons of his own psychology, a castaway from the rest of humanity. Ultimately, it is impossible not to feel sorry for the author of Walden (italics mine).” Aided and abetted by a culture that erases difference and disability, Schulz makes no room for the truth of his experience as he has lived and articulated it. She echoes Hall in saying, “I felt that he was intelligent or it wouldn’t have mattered.” In her very last sentence, Schulz states that Thoreau’s “deepest desire and signature act was to turn his back on the rest of us.” Here the arrogance she takes Thoreau to task for is fully on display, only it’s coming from her.Imagine all the ways human beings harm one another and every other species on the planet and then tell me why I should view our human enterprise with more warmth.
According to Schulz, the real reason we make a “national hero” out of Thoreau is not because of his insight or wisdom or affinity for nature, which she praises him for, but rather because he is “suspicious of government, fanatical about individualism, egotistical, elitist, convinced that other people lead pathetic lives yet categorically opposed to helping them.” In other words, he is a Republican. If that were true—and if her calculus about the meaning of his work were correct—I might tend to agree. But she severely misreads him. “Perhaps the strangest, saddest thing about Walden,” Schulz says, “is that it is a book about how to live that says nothing about how to live with other people.” Nothing? Is the impulse to remove oneself from society for a time of reflection and personal growth not part of the recipe for how to live with other people? And is living with other people the only moral ballgame in town worthy of our consideration? Is it possible that people on the spectrum don’t share this glorious view of harmony with others as the pinnacle of fulfillment and instead find it a source of perpetual shame?
If you are wired differently, and if you feel isolated and alone in the world, then denouncing that world—or turning your back on it, as Schulz has it—would be one of the few options available to you for preserving your dignity. You would champion individualism because it is the primary method by which you make peace with yourself. You would seem egotistic because attending to your own needs is a never-ending task when your orientation differs from the orientations of other people. How do we suppose Thoreau got the idea that most people live lives of quiet desperation if not from his own experience as a desperate person? How did he come to ask: “Could a greater miracle exist than for us to look through each other’s eyes for a moment?” I am not saying that we can’t argue or disagree with Thoreau. We can and should. We should also try to look for a moment through his and each other’s eyes.
One of the reasons I think Thoreau achieved the status of national hero is precisely because of his difference—not his indifference. The strangeness, intensity, and beauty of his writing—and, yes, perhaps its priggishness and severity, too—relentlessly challenges us to question ourselves. Why do we think and act as we do? Through his rendering of his mind, we have the chance—if we can bear to not look away—to better understand our own.
He didn’t turn his back on us. He just stood far enough away that we might see our reflections in the mirror of his words.
The sad thing about Walden isn’t that it fails to tell us how to live with other people. The sad thing is how we unselfconsciously mythologize it, a point Schulz concedes. Every generation fashions its own Henry David Thoreau, from rugged individual to environmental activist to, now, hypocritical misanthrope. The mysteries of his difference, in holding up a mirror, present us with a subject we can’t look away from: ourselves. Whether we like what we see there isn’t about or up to Thoreau. Likely he wouldn’t care anyway. He had tree rings to count, bees to chase across meadows, saunters to set out upon, a life to live by his own measure.
I have known a few people who lived life by their own measure. I think of my friend and fellow teacher Neal. He was a mainstay—first as a graduate student and later as an adjunct—in the department where I did my MFA over twenty years ago. Neal was older than most of his fellow students—in his late forties. He had studied lyric poetry at Naropa in the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, which had been founded in the seventies by Chögyam Trungpa and Allen Ginsberg. A dead-ringer for Jerry Garcia with his curly gray hair and beard, his Windsor glasses and faded jean jacket and old cable-knit fisherman sweaters, Neal embodied Naropa’s hippie origins and emphasis on art, aesthetics, aestheticism, and activism. A voracious reader and a lover of syntax, he devoured the works of Anne Carson, the Black Mountain School poets, the Beats, and those at the outer margins of modernism and high theory.
In those days before we all carried internet access in our pockets, the department computer lab was a hub of activity, and Neal haunted it, leaning in the doorway, laughing, holding court, telling stories to anyone who would listen. Prior to academia, he had bounced through a series of workaday jobs: surgical orderly, psych attendant, bartender, teamster, IHOP cook, dishwasher, gardener, youth hosteler, editor, printer’s assistant, poet. He had been born in Montana and grown up in Norman, Oklahoma, and one of his favorite stories to tell was about how he woke up one morning and their garage was gone. A tornado touched down in the night and cleanly removed it in the night. Another favorite story was how during a period of housing instability in Oregon he would buy round-trip bus tickets back and forth from Eugene to San Francisco. On the long ride, he could manage a comfortable eight hours of sleep.
No matter how often he told the stories, the events of his life always seemed to surprise him, as though they had happened to someone else. As though he couldn’t quite believe them either. He was childlike in that way. Some chronic talkers will consume you. Neal listened as much and as well as he talked. He connected and remembered. One day I said offhandedly all I really wanted to say in a poem was something about how the wind moved through the branches of a tree. At his MFA thesis reading two years later—to my delight and surprise—we found meaning in that attempt together when he dedicated to me a finely wrought poem about how the wind moved through tree branches.Prior to academia, Neal had bounced through a series of workaday jobs: surgical orderly, psych attendant, bartender, teamster, IHOP cook, dishwasher, gardener, youth hosteler, editor, printer’s assistant, poet.
He loved being part of the English department, its community of students and writers. After finishing his MFA, he began the PhD program and bought himself another five years to teach and read and write. He lived in an efficiency apartment near a bar called Mama’s Place in a rough neighborhood across the river. Rather than own a car, he walked and took the bus. I never heard him complain. He didn’t care about money or prestige either, happy enough to do his work and to celebrate the accomplishments of others. The only times I saw flashes of anger from him were when we talked about social and environmental injustices, and all the ways in which the powerful leveraged their power to exploit people and places who had little or none.
After a lifetime of drifting from job to job, Neal made his home in teaching. It was something he was good at, and it gave him satisfaction and a sense of purpose. When he failed to find a tenure track job after earning his doctorate, a reality for the vast majority of newly minted humanities PhDs in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008, he was grateful to stick around and work as an adjunct for starvation wages. The meaning the work gave him was all the payment he required, and the university happily took advantage, the way most universities do.
Counting his time as a graduate student at this large land-grant university, Neal spent seventeen years in the English department before a supposed dip in enrollment numbers resulted in there being no classes for him to teach. A cursory effort was made to find him other work on campus. One of the department secretaries hired him to do some temporary pet-sitting. None of it provided as needed. Without warning he had been forcibly expelled from his community. While it’s true he may have had other choices, it’s also true that the university—and the faculty in the English department who were the main beneficiaries of his efforts—made their choices. The university chose to exploit his labor. The faculty chose to tolerate and ignore him.
My wife and I—who had long since moved on from the university—watched Neal’s story unfold from afar in Facebook posts. He wasn’t at all self-pitying or angry or bitter. He resigned himself to the reality of the loss. When things got dire and he couldn’t make rent, we and some others tried to intervene with offers of financial help. My wife offered to buy him Greyhound tickets to stay with us. Neal steadfastly refused it all. It wasn’t pride that kept him from taking our money—or not exclusively pride. He was heartbroken. When they took his job away, they took away his reason for living.
The summer following the layoff, he was evicted from his apartment and spent several weeks couch-surfing before entering a homeless shelter. Beyond what friends related as we frantically tried to connect with and support him, I don’t know what his days were like. He stopped answering Facebook messages (perhaps because he lacked reliable internet access) and only rarely posted status updates. That winter when the cold weather rolled in, he contracted a serious case of pneumonia and was hospitalized. He survived the ordeal but the damage had been done. A year and a half later, his obituary popped up on my Facebook feed. He had died after a short illness, it said. He was sixty-four.
I felt angry in a way Neal himself never would have been because his humility wouldn’t have allowed it. He deserved better. For seventeen years he taught and wrote and brought a spirit of companionship to anyone lucky enough to drift into his orbit. It didn’t matter who you were—a celebrated professor, a literary giant, a student, a secretary, a custodian pushing a mop in an empty hallway late at night—you had a friend in Neal, someone who would listen and share. I was angry he didn’t get to tell his own story. I was angry for his unwritten poems. The Donald Halls of the world might look at his life and say he wasted it. The Kathryn Schulzes might pity him the shipwreck of his own psychology. But he was kind, decent, selfless, and while he, too, may have lived with a difference that shaded his outlook and presaged his fate, it was those other qualities—in such short supply in the rest of us—that made him truly different. Had he been a cynical, narrow-minded asshole like so many of those he taught alongside, he might still be alive.
I remember the last time I saw him. I was back home for some reason—it was before he was let go. I had pulled up to a stoplight near campus and spotted him on the corner waiting to cross, same curly gray hair and glasses after maybe ten years, a stack of books in his arms. I rolled down the window and called his name. He looked around, trying to figure out where the voice came from and who it belonged to. Then our eyes met and I waved excitedly. I’ll never forget: he just smiled, chagrined to see me again after all this time, and he threw his head back and laughed. And that was it. The light changed. I drove away. The Buddhist poet, teacher, and peacemaker Thich Nhat Hanh says that what the world needs most in order to heal is people who know how to smile, how to inhabit their joy inside of the world’s hurt. He says you are that person, and so am I. When I think of Neal now, I think of his smile and everything it might yet teach me.
Don’t mistake my fond thoughts about Neal’s life and memory, however, for my acceptance of the indifference that killed him. In English departments across the country students are promised a curriculum that will teach them adaptive thinking skills, empathy, and creativity. Without actions to back them up, those are just words.
Neal worked for a university that employed some of the world’s most brilliant minds, and, collectively, they failed him.
They simply did not care.
Though Neal wasn’t a common person by any stretch, what happened to him was typical of those who teach as adjuncts. In nearly every university are people who have been strung along semester to semester, year to year, working when it suits the needs of the privileged few and expected to vanish without complaint the moment that need evaporates. It’s not just universities, however, where this dynamic flourishes. People with differences are suddenly “let go” from jobs all the time. With their invisible disabilities and their tendencies, perhaps, not to totally understand when or how to—or even if they should—advocate on their own behalf, they are often the first to be pushed out. From their earliest days in school when their learning needs are not met, or when their learning needs are met with open hostility, they are trained in believing themselves as less than deserving of care than everyone else.
I work with many such students. They are every bit as intelligent, if not more so, than their cohort, scoring well on tests, for example, but unable to complete their work on time and keep up good grades. They arrive in my class having been misrepresented as lazy, underestimated, discriminated against, talked down to on the basis of their interests, berated, infantilized, and written off, the psychological effects of which are incredibly damaging and long-lasting, and for many, potentially, lifelong. They internalize the identities other people ascribe them.
What we miss in real life, we miss on the page. Donald Hall was the Poet Laureate of the United States, the pinnacle of success for an artist of his kind. Kathryn Schulz won a Pulitzer Prize for an “elegant scientific narrative of the rupturing of the Cascadia fault line.” While Hall’s subject was a man he knew and loved, and Schulz’s a near-mythic figure in American literature alive in the minds of millions, neither appreciated the fault lines in their own thinking. Both assumed that the frameworks of their imaginations were expansive enough to understand and offer summary judgement. Both privileged a biased assessment of individual behavior over even a cursory examination of the cultures, contexts, and complexities that may have been at work behind the scenes. Having done so would have muddled the points they set out to make. Being “right” meant more to them than who they wrote about.
I don’t think Hall and Schulz are bad people. In fact, they are probably some of our best and brightest. If I didn’t think they were intelligent, this wouldn’t matter. So often, however, our best and brightest fail to recognize the ways in which their successes and achievements go on to color their attitudes, choices, and discernments when it comes to other people. The academic underclass of which my friend Neal was a part—a system which used up every last drop of him without a hint of remorse—was built for the benefit of such successful people. Inequity is an open secret in the academy, and so is the irrelevance of the work of many tenured professors whose writing can only be understood by half a dozen people worldwide but who nevertheless tout themselves as public intellectuals and paragons of virtue. They all could use a long saunter through Walden Woods, not to encounter its beauty but to be humbled by its indifference to them.
Most people know that Thoreau built his shack at Walden Pond on land Emerson owned and gave him permission to use. What’s less well known is that after Thoreau left the woods he lived in Emerson’s house for two years while Emerson toured the lecture circuit in Europe. After that, until his death in 1862, he rented a room in his parents’ home, making a living doing odd jobs, surveying work, and occasionally lecturing.
Thoreau lived modestly so that he might make a life of reading and writing and taking long walks and keeping his meticulous journals. Without Emerson and his mother—without the circles of care he contributed to and benefitted from—we would not have the radiance of Thoreau’s mind to ponder. Solnit describes Thoreau’s relationship with his family and friends in Concord as one in which they were “freed to be with each other and to strengthen each other,” and one with the capacity to “free anyone who might possibly need freeing, including ourselves and the meaning of our lives in all their uncategorizable complexity.”
In “Walking,” a ramble of an essay, Thoreau memorializes his habit of traipsing off into the woods each afternoon, directionless, a glad receiver of whatever sustenance nature placed in his begging bowl. He begins by reminding us that the word “sauntering” was derived from “‘idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked for charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre,’ to the Holy Land, [until] the children exclaimed, ‘There goes a Sainte-Terrer,’ a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander.” The essay is erudite, funny, argumentative, provocative, and, in places, almost obscenely beautiful. It ends on the glories of a late autumn sunset. “I was walking in a meadow,” Thoreau writes, “. . . when the sun at last, just before setting, after a cold, gray day, reached a clear stratum in the horizon, and the softest, brightest morning sunlight fell on the dry grasses and on the stems of the trees in the opposite horizon and on the leaves of the shrub oaks on the hillside, while our shadows stretched long over the meadow eastward, as if we were the only motes in its beams.” Having made his arguments and methodically laid out evidence for his claims—having fulfilled the era’s expectations for an essay published in The Atlantic—Thoreau arrives at his true purpose for writing, not a philosophical point to hammer home but a faithful rendering of the unexplainable rapture he felt for the natural world.
I wish my friend Neal could walk in such soft sunlight. Like the syntax of a poem, like the wind through the branches of a tree, he was an inscrutable presence, one who lives on now in those of us whose days he brightened with a story and a smile, those of us who tried to help him but couldn’t save him. The people surrounding Thoreau, his family and friends, made it possible for him to live as himself, to do the things that gave him life. It worked to everyone’s benefit, theirs and—all these years later—ours. The people surrounding Neal—the ones with power, who could have had an impact—turned their backs. His only value to them lay in how he made their lives easier. In the end, he only needed what we all need, love and some basic, practical support, and people with every comfort and privilege withheld it.
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