I have often been amazed at what can happen in a classroom. Today, again, was one of those remarkable days when something powerful takes place. The responsible party– Emily Dickinson. The unsuspecting students– three classes of eleventh grade boys, young men in appearance and intellect, but young and “not quite ready” for the shock Emily Dickinson would deliver. They read several of her poems over the weekend and today were to discuss “Success Is Counted Sweetest” and “I Like a Look of Agony.”
Students who don’t normally speak up, found their voices today. One said, “Of course it’s true that people who lose know more about success. They want it more.” Another commented on the military image in the second stanza of “Success.” He remarked “I feel terrible for the guy dying on the battlefield having to hear the victors celebrating their win. But that’s the way the world is, isn’t it?” Another young man said, “It’s the world we’ve made. Not the world as it has to be.” As a teacher, sometimes it’s best to sit back and let their questions hang in the air. It’s not always for me to answer.
High school students are highly sensitive to a mere speck of dishonesty, or falseness. So they have a natural inclination to the truth of the lines: “I like a look of agony/Because I know it’s true.” One young man said, “Everybody fakes friendship. Everybody fakes good feelings. But fake pain? That’s not so easy.” Emily Dickinson knew exactly what he meant.
At the end of our discussion, I asked “So what are these poems about?” One student said, “You mean ‘who’ are they about? Us.” Nothing more needed to be said. This is why we read Emily Dickinson more than 120 years after her remarkable writing life.
Photo Above: Public Domain