My daughter, at 2:45 today will become Walt Whitman. She has the hat. She has the rakish stance. She’s got the magnetic stare. Indeed, she’s had them all her whole life. I think, in the end, I can blame myself – I was reading “Leaves of Grass” obsessively when I was pregnant with her. Over and over again I laid down on the grass. Over and over I was the grass. And now she is Walt Whitman. So it goes.
In any case, at 2:45, she and the rest of her fourth grade class will don their outfits and become the Famous Americans that they have spent the last month researching, and explain to the hordes of adoring parents that will be crowding into the room why their person was famous and important, and it will be ridiculously cute. Also, there will be cookies.
This morning, as we were getting ready for school and Cordelia was going over her note cards one last time, she decided to quiz her brother. This is a time-honored tradition of big sisters (I confess to doing it myself, way back when) of quizzing their younger siblings on topics that they know absolutely nothing about so that they can feel deeply informed and awesome. Here’s how the conversation went:
CORDELIA: Leo. Quick. Who was Walt Whitman?
LEO: Ummmm. A garbage man.
LEO: A farmer.
LEO: A teacher.
CORDELIA: No. Well, yes. But only for a little while. And he hated teaching.
(That was true. Points to Cordelia. This is what he said about his time living in Long Island teaching school: “Never before have I entertained so low an idea of the beauty and perfection of man’s nature, never have I seen humanity in so degraded a shape, as here. Ignorance, vulgarity, rudeness, conceit, and dulness are the reigning gods of this deuced sink of despair.” Ouch. Even I didn’t have such rough talk for the profession that kicked my butt, long ago. Though, in retrospect, I think I may have used the “sink of despair” line once or twice.)
CORDELIA: (after some consideration) Well, he had lots of jobs. But what job made him famous? Like for forever. What did he do?
LEO: He was a baker.
LEO: Building canoes?
CORDELIA: NO! He was a poet.
LEO: What’s a poet?
ME: A poet is someone who writes poems for their job. Just like a novelist is someone who writes novels for their job.
LEO: Is a bookie someone who writes books for their jobs?
ME: No, that’s something else.
LEO: (thinking) Walt Whitman writes poems?
ME: Well, he did. He’s dead now.
LEO: OH! I KNOW THAT GUY!
CORDELIA: You don’t know that guy. None of us do. Because he’s dead.
LEO: No. I know his poem.
CORDELIA: No you don’t.
LEO: Yes I do. O Captain, my Captain.
ME: (jaw drop)
LEO: (thinking) O Captain, my Captain our fearful trip is done! And….(eyes rolling to the ceiling) then something about bells.
CORDELIA: Nice work Leo. I see you’ve been paying attention.
LEO: I know all about poems. I am a poemer.