"O Captin! My Captin!"
I wasn't going to look into the bums' eyes. Not even a passing
The streets of Philadelphia had too many people begging
for spare change, and as I walked out of the train station and
towards the city, I made a conscious effort to ignore every one of
them, to avoid their guilt-inducing stares.
You see, as a veteran teacher, I had spent a career looking
into my students' eyes. It was core to my teaching philosophy
and contributed to my success in the classroom.
"At least twice per class period you should look each student
in the eyes," I'd often tell new teachers. "Let them know you care.
Acknowledge their presence; show them you see them. Look,
and they exist."
Indeed, I could never ignore their eyes in my classroom
and in the hallways at our school—and that unbridled empathy
for all eventually cost me dearly—but I could look away on the
streets of Philadelphia. And I did. Each beggar I passed, I passed
with a defiant, unspoken persistence. My world. Your world. I
exist. You don't.
At the corner of 22nd and Market, however, one beggar
crossed the boundary. He was younger, in his early 20s, and he
was sitting on the ground just a few feet ahead of me. He was
reading what looked like an old anthology. Once again, I made a
conscious effort to avert my gaze. My world. Your world.
"O Captain! My Captain!" he said as I approached him.
Two Burnouts Walks Into a Coffee Shop
Though his remark was odd—a homeless person quoting
Walt Whitman!—I kept walking. But the irony—here I was, an
English teacher trying to escape my classroom, and a beggar was
hurling Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!,” one of my favorite
poems from one of my favorite poets, directly at me.
I needed the escape. It had been a tough school year thus far,
and I was physically, mentally and emotionally drained. The day
before, I had been to my doctor's office, where he diagnosed me
with extreme exhaustion.
"You've been hit with the Helper's Curse," he said, his tone
serious. "You've burned out badly. Get off the treadmill. Now."
So, at the urging of my wife, I called in sick the next day
and took the hour-long Keystone train to Philadelphia, where
I explored the city, drank copious cups of coffee, and thought
about my situation. I needed to stop, to get away from the
English teaching world, which is why the homeless guy spouting
Whitman gave me pause.
"O Captain! My Captain!" he repeated again as I passed, his
voice growing louder. But my back was already toward him, and
I kept walking. After all, my wife’s instructions were clear. This
trip was about me. About my health. About my life. I exist. You
I had spent the day as planned. I got lost in an old book shop.
I enjoyed an espresso at 9, a good cup of coffee at 10, a bad cup of
coffee at noon, and at 2, and at 4. I chatted with a retired police
officer, explored an obscure art museum and threw a penny on
Ben Franklin's grave (both for luck and as a token of passive
aggressiveness...you know, "a penny saved" and all.)
I didn't think much about the homeless guy or Whitman
or my job until I approached 22nd and Market again—quite by
accident, honestly—on my way back to the Amtrak station. I
saw him from a short distance away and was anticipating that he
would say something. He saw me, and I averted my eyes.
"O Captain! My Captain!" he said again.
"Sorry, bud," I said, without looking or stopping. "I'm not
"You're right," he said, his voice slowing. "But you were my
I stopped and turned my head just a bit. He smiled.
"Mr. Hansei...It's Bobby. Bobby Bradley."
And thus began my journey out of the cave...