American Literature Students and the Thoreau Challenge

January 18, 2012 at 5:55 pm Leave a comment

by Molly Newman, Humanities Faculty

When Henry David Thoreau moved to a small cabin on the banks of Walden Pond, what did he hope to discover? Never content with mediocrity, Thoreau hoped to find nothing less than the meaning of life: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

157 years later, my American Literature class considered Thoreau’s endeavor with a healthy mixture of suspicion and reverence. “If he wants to simplify, why are his sentences so complicated?” one student asked. Someone else quipped: “Didn’t his mom do all his laundry for him?”

I love hearing the kinds of responses Thoreau provokes from my students. Reading Walden should be an uncomfortable, polarizing experience. Thoreau calls our comfortable lives into question, and if we don’t squirm, then we just might be a bit complacent. While I hardly consider IAA students to be complacent, I do think that they
can lose sight of the bigger picture while they are busily rehearsing, creating, studying, and socializing. For this reason, I asked my American Literature students to take the Thoreau Challenge: for one week, they had to make a change that would, ideally, make their life more meaningful.

They embraced the project with zeal. Some students decided to wake up earlier and walk or run through the woods; some students became vegetarian or vegan; one student took up meditation; another chose to be silent. A group of four girls camped out next to my house for four days!

At the end of the week, none professed to find the meaning of life. I think many realized, however, that discovery is unpredictable. To an individual paying attention, possibility is everywhere.

Below are excerpts from the essays my students wrote about their experience.

The founder of Buddhism, Hindu Prince Gautama Siddhartha, said in one of his writings, “If a man’s mind becomes pure, his surroundings will also become pure.” After this experiment, I felt like my mind was more pure than before and for this reason I had the ability to appreciate everything around me more. Being a vegetarian became more than just staying away from meat, it became a cleansing experience that made me realize how fortunate I am to live at a place that is so full of life and peace. It gave me the opportunity to appreciate nature and to understand how I can use it to inspire me in my daily life. Since I was not eating meat, I started to become more aware of all of the wild life that we have in Idyllwild. I have always known that there are a lot of animals where we live; I just never took the time to really acknowledge them. This project helped me learn to be grateful for what we have here and to use this for motivation in my day-to-day life. –Mariana Barba Cid

As Thoreau said, “there are none happy in the world but beings who enjoy freely a vast horizon”(890). I was unable to see the horizon ahead of me because I was the one holding myself back. I feel as though a weight has been lifted from my shoulders, and I can now see myself going to college.
Thoreau’s ways helped inspire me to make lifestyle changes that helped me in getting myself back on track. I was able to fully commit to this project for a week, going to bed earlier every night but one, and I never would have expected the outcome to be so rewarding. I was able to become a more centered and balanced individual, not hindering myself by pointlessly going to bed late. I had been hoping to be more productive during the day, but I was never expecting to be as efficient as I was. It gives me such satisfaction to say that I am almost done applying to college and that next year I can see myself at a university. Thoreau has helped me become a more successful individual and I think that anyone would agree that he is awesome for doing so. –Gabby DiMarco

Speech is a human connection going back to campfires and telling stories. It’s an outlet for thoughts and emotion. Not only was my “speechless” period relatively depressing because of the fact that I wasn’t talking to people (and when I did I punished myself), but I was missing an easy outlet for emotion. I wish I could say I noticed something I hadn’t seen before or had a groundbreaking epiphany, but I did not. The only thing I realized is that I should talk to more people. Make more of an effort for connection; show the garrulous side of Emiley Miller. When I wasn’t supposed to talk at all, it made talking to people I didn’t know much easier. –Emiley Miller

The biting cold made it difficult for me to want to write, to need to produce something tangible. It was not that I did not have the drive to write my thoughts down, but the idea of removing my hands from my pockets was terrifying. I found that I was content with the idea of my words remaining inside of my head, something which usually makes me uncomfortable. Removing my hands from my inner thighs, I reached for my cell phone. The screen was covered in thick condensation, which froze between the creases of my fingerprints. I had been lying awake for almost six hours; it was about a half an hour past four. When my alarm went off one hour later, I found it impossible to separate myself from my sleeping bag. –Rebecca Cox

Life is not about trying to never get a scratch from falling – it is about loving each scar because you will never get the same wound again. Failure is what makes us human – learning from that failure is what makes us successful humans. Taking risks will shove you forward, and even if you fall after, you still made it further than the person who stood still. Living – it’s the same as dancing – it doesn’t matter how many turns you can do, unless you mess up, you cannot get better. –Amira Lambert

So I sat in a sort of meditative state and just listened, trying to take in what nature had to say: the trees were alive, telling gossip and stories to one another. I heard the traveling songs of the leaves and they rustled along. I heard the playing of the woodland creatures, chatter of the nearby kids walking to class, and most important thing of all: nothing. I really enjoyed this day because I believed that it was very important to let Her get in a few words, instead of us talking all of the time. –Randy Plummer

Don’t forget to have fun with Transcendentalism. The whole point is to have a childlike view of the world full of innocence and wonder. I definitely got a little child-like. One of my favorite memories from this adventure was lying in the tent with Meg during the day and playing with her stuffed giraffe. One little thing would set us off into hysterical laughter. Maybe it was the exhaustion or maybe it was that we had successfully transcended and in turn regressed to our childhood selves. –Madison Gerringer

After reading all of my students’ essays, I was struck by how sincere they all were. I was reminded yet again of why I love teaching this adventurous bunch of aspiring young artists. Like Thoreau, they aspire to something transcendent. Their passion allows them to understand “that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

Entry filed under: Academics, American Literature, campus culture, daily happenings. Tags: , , , , , , .

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