Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
Over Christmas break I was lucky enough to vacation in Tahoe. On a hike, I came across this vision of Lake Tahoe completely frozen with the snow-dotted Sierras in the background. Sure, I took other more exciting photos of the Sierras during my trip, but the sheer expanse of the ice-filled Lake was probably my first Wordsworthian encounter with the “sublime.” Its size, emptiness, and shimmering beauty filled me with awe—it appeared infinite.
And yet, my mind immediately skipped from Wordsworth to Langston Hughe’s iconic poem “Dreams” Why “Dreams?” Well, poetry really began for me with Langston Hughes. In the 9th grade, my English teacher, Mr. Sheppard, asked us to write a 2-page essay on the poem. We were learning at once how to write an essay and how to “read” poetry—to interpret it. What Mr. Sheppard didn’t know was that at the time he assigned the poem I was one of those people who actually hated poetry.
Despite my hatred of poetry, something about this particular poem registered with me. And I honestly can’t remember working as hard at anything before as I did analyzing this poem. I turned in my essay. A few days went by. Mr. Sheppard finally passed back our graded essays. When I received mine, there was no grade only a note at the bottom asking me to see Mr. Sheppard after class. The bell rang and I approached Mr. Sheppard with a tentative smile on my face. But his face turned into a menacing grimace:
“Lynn, how did you write this essay?”
Blinking quickly, I responded stupidly, “What?”
He said slowly, “Did someone help you write this essay?”
My smile flattened as I blinked again, “No.”
“Lynn, I’m going to ask you one more time. This time you need to answer me truthfully. Did your parents or someone else write this essay for you?”
My voice went up, “My parents??? No.” (I guess he missed the memo about my parents being drug addicts.)
“Okay, then, did you plagiarize this essay?”
“Did I do what?”
“Plagiarize. You know, borrow someone else’s words when you wrote this?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Well you are lying because you couldn’t possibly have written this.”
And so it went.
How could I explain it? How could I explain why words written by an African American poet in the 1920s spoke so clearly to me? That in so many ways, I was living this poem. I may have been a white, middle-class teenager, but decisions my parents made had pretty much taken away my ability to dream—and that at the tender age of 14 my life was already a barren field frozen with snow. Only a few weeks earlier I had been pulled out of my history class and escorted to the principal’s office with a police officer. It seems my parents were being formally investigated by CPS (Child Protective Services) for child abuse and neglect.
(The irony of this whole encounter hasn’t gone unnoticed by me as I think of the times I’ve had to have the same uncomfortable conversation with my own students at Berkeley and Davis, essentially accusing one of them of plagiarism. Life is indeed some weird circular joke. The farther we get from the beginning the closer we come to where it all began.)
So this “field” of ice in Tahoe this week reminded me of something I had forgotten. It reminded me of poetry. For it was Hughes’s poem that helped me to imagine that life might still have something left to offer me. To try once more to live. And even to dream again.
[Note: This year Mr. Sheppard committed suicide. And I don’t think he ever knew that he was essentially the teacher who sent me down a path to study literature and bring the beauty of poetry to my students.]