I was in third year high school when my brother and I discovered the Dead Poets Society. He and I watched it over and over until we knew all the lines well enough to stage our own play version. We pondered over John Keating’s words as much as his prep school pupils did. Robin William’s character, this inspiring and creative imparter of knowledge, was my teaching muse. He still is.
To say that Keating was not a traditional teacher is an understatement. The film starts out showing the teaching styles of the other teachers in the school. They epitomized the complete authority figure; their tools of the trade: rote, authors as indisputable sources of knowledge, and fear. Then enters Keating, whistling Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture as if strolling down the park, caught up in an exciting world of his making. Exactly then we assume that this is no ordinary teacher and we’re right to do so because in a few beats he brings his students to the school gallery and gives them the famous “Carpe Diem” speech. “Seize the day, boys,” He said in eerie tones. “Make your lives extraordinary!”
Keating’s methods were unusual. They required a certain sense of boldness, a willingness to take the plunge or even act the fool. But he didn’t appreciate the clumsy audacity, the crazy dive into the abyss. He didn’t encourage the wise-crack remarks and antics of Charlie, especially when he pulled off the phone-call-from-God prank (“It’s God. He said girls should be allowed in Welton!”). He wanted his students to be brave thinkers and thinking braves: to rip (-rip-rrrrip!) the pages off a book that boxed and judged poetry as one would a potential American Idol; to run in the field and recite a poem as strongly, and as passionately, as one would kick a soccer ball; to stand on the teachers table and view his classroom, and the world, differently. His goal was for his students to experience knowledge and life. Not all of his students appreciated it. One of them, Cameron, couldn’t wait to get Keating into trouble in order to get brownie points from the headmaster. Another, Todd, was so inhibited that he welcomed his teacher’s passion as much as he would a rattlesnake. Certainly, his colleagues didn’t, except for the Latin teacher who eventually started holding his classes in the school paths, striding along with the rhythm of Latin words.
When I was younger, I passionately hated the close-minded headmaster and Dr. Perry, the uber-strict father of Neil, the student who joined the production of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. My brother and I would snarl at these characters each time they appeared because they did nothing but disapprove and discourage. But now that I’m older and, in the 5 years that I’ve been a teacher, have bore the brunt of disapproving headmasters (or nuns, to be more precise) and discouraging parents, I can say that I understand where they are coming from, and it is fear.
People fear what is different. Sometimes fear manifests itself as narrow-mindedness and self-righteousness. In Keating’s case, his teaching method was deemed improper because it didn’t fit the defined cornered mold from which the faculty was modeling. What was so wrong with holding classes outside of the classroom? Or asking the students to step on top of a desk to illustrate a point? These were not corrupting activities. They weren’t fatal or anarchic. However, if one is encouraged to step off the gravelly path then maybe that person will eventually step further away and walk a different path or create paths of his own, or so Keating’s colleagues feared. More than to keep order, rules, in essence, are meant to control. If you allow a student to veer away from a rule, even in the slightest, they might eventually rebel. In the conservative school administration’s eyes, any teacher or student who thinks outside the mold is suspect, therefore, to be feared.
Welton found a way to get rid of Keating because of Neil’s death. Still wearing his Puck garland, he died by his own hand; although it may well have been Keating who pulled the trigger, if you ask Neil’s father and the headmaster. His crime was that he nurtured the boys’ love for the stage and believed Neil when he said he had gotten his father’s approval. Should Keating have pursued the matter and called Dr. Perry to verify this? Would that have pacified the rigid father and stopped him from sending his son to military school, thus preventing Neil’s suicide? We, teachers, should always do more than what our job descriptions ask of us. Our contracts don’t ask us to wait with a student whose parents are late in picking her up, or lend an ear while another tells us about an argument she had with her friend. These are not written in our contracts but they don’t have to be. Good teachers do them for free because we care for our students; but in the end, we can only do so much. We are not their friends. We are not their parents. We are responsible for their welfare only up to an extent, and beyond that hope that their parents and guardians are nurturing them well.
Several times I’ve been paid a great compliment. On separate occasions, a few of my students told me they reminded me of John Keating. They might as well have called me “O Captain, my Captain”. In all those occasions my smile was a mile-wide. There’s nothing more blissful than to hear my students tell me they think I’m doing a great job. This wonderful benefit isn’t in our contracts either, and I’m glad it isn’t.
When you’re a teacher, happiness is not always about money.