Today my seniors read “To An Athlete Dying Young” by A. E. Housman. Housman, for those who need a BritLit refresher, was a Victorian era homosexual whose spurned feelings of love during his youth lead him to write some great, horribly depressing poetry about unrequited love and decay brought on by age. “…Athlete…” is perhaps his most famous work.
It’s about a star runner who has died at an early age and the poet’s thoughts on how the runner was fortunate in that he has escaped the ravages of age not only on his physical being, but also on his athletic accomplishments. I was always a bit twitchy about how to approach this one in class.
I really thought it sends the wrong message, but it was difficult to argue with it. After all, we have celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, Kurt Cobain, John Belushi, and now Heath Ledger who will always be remembered in their prime. Meanwhile, we have folks like Ozzie Osbourne, (shudder) Michael Jackson, and Muhammad Ali who it could be argued have had their legends degraded simply be living past their expiration dates.
Again, I knew in my heart that this message is plain wrong, but I really didn’t know how to counter it. Sadly, several years ago I realized exactly why it was wrong. I had a student that I knew for several years. He was one of my first students when I started teaching at my present school. I had him in seventh grade, then when I shifted to ninth two years later, I had him again, and I finally had him during his senior year. He was a great kid who could not only be counted on to say something humorous when appropriate, but also to add a salient observation about what we were studying when it was time to really crack the book. One day in April he was absent.
I didn’t think too much about it because “senioritis” hits a lot of twelfth graders in the last two months of the year, and he missed infrequently. Classes went on as usual, but at the end of the day the principal came over the speakers asking all teachers to report to the library after the last bell for a short meeting. This is never a good thing. Getting that message is akin to getting a phone call at 3 AM. No one’s ever calling to tell you good news. Though I was prepared for something bad, I wasn’t ready for what it was. This bright young man had committed suicide earlier in the day.
Though it always affects me when a student I have or have had in the past dies (and it has happened far, far too often), this hit me harder than most because of how long I knew him and how much respect I had for his potential. To make matters worse, when I got home and had to get ready for the next day’s lesson, I realized what I had on the agenda.
“To An Athlete Dying Young.”
I didn’t know what to do. I wondered if it would be appropriate; would the students think this was validating their classmate’s actions? Would I be condoning suicide as a viable option? Hell, I wondered if I could even get through it without breaking down myself. I probably tossed in bed until 4 AM debating myself over what to do. By morning I came to my conclusion.
I taught the poem, but I took a different approach than in previous years. We read it as usual, though the class was more somber than previous years’. We listed the celebs and sports stars who will always be remembered in their glory years, and we listed those that probably wish they could be. And when our friend’s name came up and the question was asked, I was ready.
I asked my class exactly what they felt Housman’s reason was for thinking the athlete was “lucky” to die young. They all agreed that it was because he would be remembered for his fame. Then I asked if fame is the most important thing in a person’s life. Where does family and friendship come in? I said that yes, I would always remember that student, our friend, as a virile eighteen year old. I’ll always remember him for the accomplishments he had in school and on the field that were still green and new when he made that tragic mistake. He was locked in amber with the laurel still upon his head, just like Housman said. But what’s missing is that now I will never have the joy of seeing him return in later years with a paunch, perhaps a receding hairline, glasses…and a wife and child beaming with love from behind him.
Houseman’s poem assumes that we live for the renown we can gather, that glory is the only thing that makes life worth living. I now argue that those things are great, but they’re mile markers, not the destination. An early death robs a person of all the other things in life that at the very least are just as important as athletic, youthful achievements. So I guess that while I appreciate what A.E. Housman said, I have to say I disagree with him vehemently on it. That’s the beauty of some works of literature; we can learn as much about life and ourselves by deciding the author had it wrong as when he has it right.