Uncle Walt

Uncle Walt
Burt Baldwin - 04/01/2021

It was during my last years of teaching American Literature that I encountered a very peculiar innocent for which I, even to this day, have no logical explanation. For you see, it all began with the Ignacio Literary Club I was sponsoring and advising. Students would publish an annual magazine of their literary works which included art and photography. The publication was entitled, Thoreau’s Back Pocket. As the club’s advisor, I would guide students through the nuances of editorship.

It was on one occasion that the group was confronted with the issue of censorship. The magazine’s editorial committee had not dealt with this issue before or since. No publication on campus could be distributed without the approval of the administration. This was a standard procedure in high schools. I thought it would be a good teaching moment to find a solution. Apparently, an administrator, after reading the proof, thought that two poems that were submitted might be interpreted as suggestive. I had to laugh as many of my students, at the time, were reading Catcher in the Rye or The Chocolate War. I called an emergency meeting. The students debated the issue. Most of them thought the poems were, by no means, offensive. The administration held the cards. There was a heated debate. Some of the students wanted to publish anyway, others sought an alternative. Would the club jeopardize publication for two poems? They decided to vote on a compromise.  They would ask the two students who wrote the controversial poems to submit alternatives.

During this time, I was teaching a unit on Walt Whitman. Not only was Whitman one of my favorite poets, but his residence-museum was just east of campus, when I was an undergrad in Camden, N.J. I had even taken time to clean litter from his gravesite. Whitman was a champion of free speech and civil rights. He fought against the oppression of Native Americans and the abuse of people with exceptionalities. His poems were censored and hardly read during his lifetime. Today, he is recognized throughout the world as a master of free verse. His books of poetry are translated into dozens of languages. As a learning aid, I had taped a photo of “Uncle Walt,” as he was affectionately referred to, on the blackboard behind my desk. It depicted him in later life, looking more like Santa with a cane. Unknowingly, “Uncle Walt” would play a mysterious part in this controversy.

After the club had made its decision, I took the original manuscript and sealed it in a manila envelope and filed it away. I proceeded to take the new manuscript, which included the new poems, and seal it in another envelope to take to the printers. The next week, I picked up the magazine from the printers and anxiously opened the new edition. To my surprise, I found they had printed the two original poems! I was confused and mystified! I called an emergency meeting of the Literary Club and grilled the members on how this could have happened. The students insisted that they were not to blame. I believed them because I knew they were not in possession of the documents or could have exchanged them. I had to find a logical answer! It was obvious I had been tricked … but who were the culprits?

After some deliberation with the group, it was decided to distribute the magazine as is. I assured the students that I would bear full responsibility if someone objected. No one did. I doubted the censor would read the work of students. I was right. When English III met at 8:30 a.m. the next morning, a student raised his hand while sitting in the back of the classroom.

“Yes, Mick?” I said. 

 He said, “A bunch of us were thinking that it might have been ‘Uncle Walt’ who switched the documents!”  Everyone laughed.

I looked back at the photo of “Uncle Walt,” and somehow I sensed a faint smile on the old man’s face.