Henry David Thoreau for the High School Mindset

When students ask “Why do I need to know this stuff?”

Ever have students tell you that school just doesn’t apply to them? Yeah, me too. Like about once a month… maybe even more often. In fact, about two weeks ago, one student — let’s call him Tim — relayed that same sentiment.

It’s a little exasperating, isn’t it? You work and work to prepare lessons and activities to make your content come alive for your students, and they still recognize little value in it.

And that’s why I love Henry David Thoreau. In my experience with high schoolers, Thoreau’s essays can give you an entry point for sharing with students that yes, there is a reason you need to know, as an example, how to use a semi-colon. Or yes, there is a reason you need to be familiar with Langston Hughes.

And Thoreau knows that reason.

After all, at Walden Pond, he spent two years, two weeks, and two days examining his life without interruption. As a result, he learned a thing or two for all of us, even the high school students who ask, “Why do I need to know this stuff?”

Walden Pond House of Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau’s House in the Woods | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Last week, we were reading Thoreau in my junior American Literature class. In the conclusion of Walden, we read the following passage:

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I stopped to talk about that “I had several more lives to live” part. I asked, “What could Thoreau have been getting at with that sentence?”

They weren’t sure.

So, I told them about Tim, that student who just the previous week had told me that what he was being taught in school wouldn’t help him in his future life. “I won’t use any of this with what I want to do,” he had told me. Tim is really into game design, like seriously into it, and and he truly thinks that his classes at school hold no real relevance for him.

I told the class that my best response to Tim had been, “Well, maybe it seems that way right now,” I said. And then I added, “But here’s the thing: life usually throws each of us circumstances that we just can’t predict or foresee.”

National Portrait Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Tim had nodded to me that I was making sense, especially when I carefully and gingerly added something along the lines of, “How could you know you won’t need what we do in this class? You’re only seventeen. You have A LOT of living to do.”

I added, “At this early point in your life, I would venture that there are really few topics or skills that you can rule out as unnecessary and impractical.”

In other words… you just never know.

I returned to the present and reminded the class that yes, sometimes it may seem like what we are learning doesn’t have relevance for them, but the key phrase is “right now.”

I continued by using my life as an example. I graduated from high school knowing I wanted a career in some kind of writing vocation. So it followed that I would major in journalism in college. My specific specialization within journalism eventually became advertising because I enjoyed the creative aspects of copywriting, graphic design, and the psychology of marketing.

However, upon graduation from college, I quickly learned that nearly every entry-level position in advertising involved sales. “Account executive” was code for salesperson. And I definitely was not one of those. I had taken two sales classes in college for my degree and dreaded both of them. Sales seemed so smarmy and manipulative.

Nonetheless, that’s the type of job I finally took right out of college… an account executive for a statewide newspaper association with a for-profit subsidiary that placed ads in the member papers. At seventeen, I would never have foreseen myself in that kind of job. You just never know.

But, like Thoreau, I had many more lives to live after that first job, and luckily, they were lives I often found much more exciting and satisfying.

I later lived the life of a…

  • marketing assistant for an aerospace defense subcontractor where at one point I was even required to obtain security clearance. (My students are amazed that their English teacher once had security clearance, even if it was the lowest “classified” level.)
  • full-time freelance writer
  • wife
  • mother
  • business owner
  • teacher

Like Henry David Thoreau, I too had many lives to live after that first full-time job. While many of my positions involved my initial interest in writing, they were not exactly what I had planned on in college, and definitely not what I had planned on when I was seventeen.

That’s why, I told my students, it doesn’t really make sense to dismiss what we do in school as pointless.

Those Shakespearean sonnets you’ll write next year in British Literature?

They will open your eyes to complex thinking and poetic construction. They are rounding out your view of the Western world, its language, and literary history. And besides, how do you really know you won’t need to know about specific sonnet forms at some point in the future?

Those Emerson essays?

Those essays are giving you a glimpse of why, as an American, you think the way you do. Also, how do you know you won’t need to be familiar with Emerson’s philosophy and his wondrous, mystical optimism in a future position?

The Jungle?

Reading the muckraking classic shows you where we’ve come from as a nation and the responsibilities government takes to protect the public. And can you say for certain that you won’t need to know about this foundational landmark text?

And don’t even get me started on math. Yes, you may never use many of the calculations you’re learning, but really… how do you know?

And that’s why I love Thoreau.

He reminds us that life is long and offers a meandering path to travel. Yes, we can plan. We can chart a path for success, and we should. But life is unpredictable and — if you need a sports analogy (or a cliché!) — may throw us a curve ball.

Thoreau is full of life-affirming ideas and you don’t have to read much more than what most American Literature textbooks offer to appreciate his contributions to the American spirit and our identity as a diverse and varied nation. Excerpts from “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” and “Civil Disobedience” will reveal how a nineteenth-century writer still has application for high schoolers wondering, “Why do I need to know this stuff?”

There’s more where this came from.

Thanks for reading. I’ll say it again: I love Thoreau. There’s just so much of his writing that connects for high school students and young people in general. Ditto that for his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. I hope to be putting more of my thoughts and best take-aways from both of these author/thinkers in a few upcoming posts. Become a follower to catch those. As always, if you have a comment, question, or idea about your experience with teaching these two authors, click the red Ask Me Anything button or visit my Contact page.

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Published by Marilyn Yung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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