This article was originally published in January 2016.
My students and I recently read, studied and discussed one of our finest American poems —Thunder Road, penned in 1975 by the patron saint of New Jersey Bruce Springsteen. Thunder Road, the lead track on the Born to Run album, is a personal favorite (and a song by my estimation I have listened to more than any other song– ever).
The pretentious English teacher in me considers TR a poem– since it’s bursting with literary techniques and ripe with cinematic quality cut from the same cloth as a Keats or a Frost work. I also consider listening to TR a right- of- passage for any American teenager. So I see it as my job (and patriotic duty) to teach my students about one of the great works of modern arena-rock literature.
TR works with my 12th grade students for a several reasons—it’s modern, it’s defiant and it wasn’t written by Shakespeare or Donne or any other dead white dude whose poems have tortured high school students since the inception of iambic pentameter.
TR is a young person’s song. It’s overwrought and overdramatic. It’s the stuff of most teenage fantasies– jumping in a car with the guy or girl your parents hate, putting the windows down, turning the radio up, extending your middle finger to the world, and driving hard into an the enormous night as you shoulder the weight of your enormous adult dreams.
I tell my students growing up is overrated. I tell them adulthood is messy and confusing. I tell them not to rush the transition. But they don’t listen. And why should they? You didn’t listen. I certainly didn’t listen.
As the school calendar curls over January, my students begin smelling summer and all the freedom that awaits the moment their graduation cap leaves their hands, rockets into a big June sky, twirls, hangs and returns to earth with the meanness of a ninja star.
My students can’t wait to get out of town, out of New Jersey, and get on with their lives. They believe that a change in scenery is all they need to ignite their lives. And they are right. They need to get out of the shadows of their hometown and explore the early days of adulthood. But they’re 17. Not a line or wrinkle on their face. No gray hairs circling the sink drain. But what about adults?
Maybe it’s just a winter funk but I have heard friends and colleagues chirping similar musings. Talking about changing offices, moving to different states. This got me thinking… does a shift in geography really make our lives better?
Yes, I know there are times that we need to leave. The environment is oppressive and is extinguishing a fire we once had. A loveless marriage. An unsatisfying job. A place crippled with negativity.
Life has taught me that a change in scenery can reinvigorate and rekindle passions. But a shift in environment can’t fully heal. Personal healing only comes internally. The setting may give you a fresh perspective but personal betterment is work and takes time. Assuming a simple shift in geography will make your life perfect is foolish and naïve.
Bruce concludes TR with the iconic “It’s a town for of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win”. A line that delights my students because that is how they feel—stifled and ready to escape. For many years I felt the same. But I’ve aged and the line feels different now –they are all losers and I’m the winner– sounds like a jaded 17 year old to me.
If we do decide to run… we must understand our attitudes will follow.
And though the new setting may suffice for a while it’s only a matter of time before we feel that old, familiar stirring and we’re off buying more bubble wrap and ordering another U-Haul.
But what do I know… I’m from Pennsylvania…maybe we were born to run.