how i stopped hating walt whitman

A drunk, sweaty man crashed my 13th birthday party, wearing a crooked, curly wig. “I’m Valter Vitman. I’m Walt Whitman’s cousin,” he bellowed. I knew him, he wasn’t Valt-freakin’-anybody. He was my neighbor Wilbur (name changed to protect the freaky), a grown man going to great lengths to make fun of a child.

Maybe if I’d been another kind of girl, “Valter’s” appearance at my birthday party would have mortified me. My friends—a motley assortment of nerds and freaks—thought it was funny and so did I. But the words “Walt Whitman,” uttered aloud on what had previously been a good day, that chilled me to my very core, because of what had happened just a few weeks earlier.

Springtime, seventh grade. Long Island, NY. The hallways were humid and sticky and we ran through them, loud and confused. My friends and I had just discovered the band Hole and seven of us shared one cassette tape of “Live Through This,” passing it from person to person. My friend Heather brought in a battery-powered tape player—not a walkman, but one with a tinny, built-in speaker—and we moshed in the bathroom to “Gutless” and got thrown out by a teacher just as we were about to get started on “Rockstar,” which was our favorite. How could it not be–just the way she sang, “When I went to school/in Olympia/and everyone’s the same” and a lot of the chorus is just her yelling “FUCK YOU.”

As a surprise to no one: I wasn’t pretty or popular. As a surprise to myself: That spring I realized that I had a crush on a girl, a good friend of mine. I was daydreaming and realized that I wanted to kiss her, which startled me, caused me a little bit of angst, but mostly it seemed to make sense. I continued with life as I normally had, except that I now had a burning, torturous crush on a girl who didn’t like me back instead of a burning, torturous crush on a boy who didn’t like me back, and I had a secret.

The internet wasn’t widely available yet. Rickie from My So-Called Life was the only queer teen role model I had, and I adored him, but he got beaten up for being gay, he had to move in with his gay English teacher because he was gay, and then his show got canceled anyway. But you know who else was a beautiful bisexual icon, whose birthplace was a mere ten miles from the bedroom where I wrote bad poetry, listened to my crush-girl complain about boys, and listened to Hole on a worn-out cassette? WALT WHITMAN. You know who didn’t want me to find out about how beautiful and queer he was? Pretty much everyone!

The main drama of that springtime, a month or so before Valter Vitman crashed my birthday party, was this: our English classes were going to go on a field trip to Walt Whitman’s birthplace. There were too many kids to go on the same day, so the 2nd and 3rd period English classes were going to go on a Wednesday, and 5th and 7th period English would go on a Thursday. I reacted to this news as if to a serious diagnosis: I was in 7th period English, and all of my friends—I mean all of them—were in 2nd and 3rd period. This meant TWO DAYS without them—the first day, facing the rest of the school, friendless. No notes! No one to sit with during lunch! I’d be—alone! What if people thought I was a loser!?! (Reader, I was definitely a loser.) And THEN—the second day—even worse. Trapped on a bus with cruel peers for a good twenty minutes to half an hour! Going on a tour with no one to talk to! Where would we eat lunch? I would have to endure it alone.

My parents, when I asked for permission to somehow go with the other field trip, were unsympathetic. “It’s only two days,” they said. And yes, it was. I had already lived through things far worse than that, but I was not operating from a strengths-based perspective, not utilizing logic and reason, not operating from a place of maturity because that place had yet to exist. I processed with my friends endlessly via landline, and they were somewhat sympathetic but mostly bored with my angst.

Wednesday rolled around and I was vibrating with dread. The school buses pulled up for the field trip and kids milled around outside. I was walking down the hallway and I saw my friends, my crush. I walked over to talk to them and the busses started boarding and I realized I could just go. Just climb on. I was a former good kid trying to be a badass, a nerd trying to avoid the fate of a nerd, an Aries trying to impress a Pisces. The door closed, my friends giggled, and we were off.

I remember very little of the actual field trip except that a middle-aged woman, wearing a sacklike dress and acting as though she had never known joy, read us all an extremely long Civil War poem by Walt in a monotone voice. Used to being bored, we squirmed in place for nearly half an hour as the poem went on and on.

At the time, it was just typical boring school bullshit. Now I’m angry about it. I’m angry that a queer person was walking the same island I had, over a hundred years earlier, and I wasn’t allowed to know about him. What if that sack-dress professional historian had hurled her head back and given us all the shock of our lives by passionately reading:

Passing stranger! You do not know how longingly I look upon you,

You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking (it comes to me as of a dream)

I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you…”

Or, what if she’d adjusted her glasses, cleared her throat and dropped this bomb in our repressed, horny little faces:

We two boys together clinging,

One the other never leaving,

Up and down the roads going, North and South excursions making,

Power enjoying, elbows stretching, fingers clutching,

Arm’d and fearless, eating, drinking, sleeping, loving…”

He’d written those words. We were standing in the place where he entered the world, and these words were not welcome. The watered-down version, the fake version, the version that was acceptable to the joyless was the only one allowed in, despite the fact that this man wrote so much about joy. His words were banned for fear of upsetting the children, of putting immoral thoughts into our heads. And yet: we were already upset; we were already immoral. And yet: poetry about war and death and killing was considered just fine for us to hear.

As it was, we came back to school right before 7th period. I went to English class and Miss Singer asked in front of the class why I’d been on the field trip. She had just noticed now that I shouldn’t have been there. Panicked, not wanting to admit that I’d intentionally gone, I said, “Uh, oh, really? I didn’t notice. I thought it was the right day.” The classroom exploded with people laughing hysterically, shrieking, “RETARD!” and “STUUUUUPID!” at me. I was sent to the principal’s office. They called my parents to let them know that I’d “cut school all day,” despite the fact that I was on a school field trip, and that I was going to be suspended. A lot of bad, scary stuff went down in my home as a result of this.

And now, just when the dust had barely settled, here’s my 40-something neighbor wearing a bad wig. We were a close-knit neighborhood; everyone knew about everything. “I’M VALTER VITMAN! HAPPY BIRTHDAY! I KNOW YOU’RE A REAL BIG FAN OF MY COUSIN WALT WHITMAN. YOU SNUCK AWAY TO VISIT HIS BIRTHPLACE!” Oh god why is this happening. My parents are laughing but is this going to remind them?

For some stupid reason, I blamed Walt Whitman, not Valter Vitman. I’d skipped school and heard a poem of his and the poem totally sucked. I’d gotten into so much trouble and had a new reason to be bullied and it was all because of stupid Walt having the nerve to exist. When Homer Simpson yelled, “Leaves of Grass, my ass!” I clapped. Fuck Walt Whitman. I loudly declared that I hated him, long after I should have known better. People tried to talk some sense to me and I shut them down. You don’t understand. You just don’t.

In the summer of 2019, I was a 37-year-old grad student in Northern California; as far from that old life as one can get. Wilbur, a/k/a Valter Vitman, had a falling out with my parents in the 90’s, not long after the birthday party; they still don’t speak, despite the fact that my dad lives two houses away from him. In the ensuing years I’d read a WW poem here and there and liked it, but it wasn’t until last summer I truly became enveloped by the magic. I was procrastinating in my university’s library one day when I grabbed a Walt Whitman anthology off the shelf. It fell open to a poem about travel and a little piece of my brain fell in love. The years and years of foolish adventures, traveling with very little money, traveling within my own city when work kept me away from the road, trying to find every secret and magical place, trying to inject magic into places. Did it all start that day that I leapt up the stairs to the yellow school bus, toward the smile of a girl who’d never love me? Who would I be if I’d been able to read those lines while nervously sitting on the bus, or in the long lonely hours of in-school suspension? Why did I keep this from myself for so long? Why did I let straight people deny me this part of my history?

I checked out the book and Walt became my companion throughout that long, strange and confusing summer. I felt his words reverberate through my life, both in the ways that I needed them now and in the ways I needed them then. Time feels like a spiral sometimes, and I was trying to use my brain to project them back to my younger self, a beacon of light beckoning towards the forest, towards the road. 

One day that August, I needed to get out of town. No real reason, just that old restlessness. Lacking money or a car, I pedaled my bicycle forty miles to a $5 hiker-biker campsite in the redwoods. I took a dangerous route that I hadn’t realized would be dangerous, hours of near-misses with speeding trucks. I also participated in the slightly less dangerous activity of bringing a library book on a camping trip. When I arrived at the campsite, hungry and exhausted, the sun was just beginning to set. I cooked some instant mashed potatoes on my stove-made-from-a-cat-food-can and read this poem underneath the sacred, ancient trees:

Full of life now, compact, visible,

I, forty years old the eighty-third year of the States,

To one a century hence or any number of centuries hence,

To you yet unborn these, seeking you.

When you read these I that was visible am become invisible,

Now it is you, compact, visible, realizing my poems, seeking me,

Fancying how happy you were if I could be with you and become your comrade;

Be it as if I were with you. (Be not too certain but I am now with you.)

I shivered. Hundreds of years ago, he’d written those words, envisioning me, envisioning thousands of other people like me, and he’d followed me to this redwood grove full of trees that had been standing on earth at the same time he was here. He was watching over me and he was watching over all the other poets, wanderers, queers, and people who had escaped Long Island. He, like me, like everyone, was deeply imperfect, but he’d been able to arrange words in a way that outlasted the confines of his physical body. He wasn’t present in his birthplace because it had turned into a stuffy museum; it had missed the point. He gave instructions as to where he’d be after he left his body: living in the words that were his work; living in the words when we read them. This was the real magic. I watched the darkness fall over the forest, and I knew he forgave me for all those stupid years I’d spent alone.

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