Dead Poets Society is one of my all-time favorite movies. I liked it the first time I saw it and still like it just as much now after seeing it probably upwards of 50 times. It combines two of my greatest loves — literature and writing — with classic themes like self-realization, friendship, love, loss, grief, and loyalty; and, it doesn’t hurt that Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau are quoted throughout. Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) is the teacher that every student wishes he had and every teacher wishes she could be (or, not). I started watching it again the other day. I wanted to find some inspiration or, at the very least, some ideas. Then I stopped it just after the carpe diem monologue. I’m not going to finish it — at least not for a while.
Wouldn’t it be great for teachers if students like those made up our classes? Wouldn’t it be great for students if their teachers were like Mr. Keating? But, they don’t and we’re not.
I’m not going to have my students rip pages out of their literature books or let them jump off my desk. I can’t afford to pay for the books and the school’s insurance wouldn’t cover the medical bills.
I wasn’t a member of a club that found an old cave where we recited poetry to one another. If I’d suggested that in high school I probably would’ve been beaten up.
I was in a play in high school. I had one line, “It’ll be alright, Cora.” Because of that role I can play Shenandoah on a harmonica, but, a thespian I am not.
I will probably have my students write their own poetry, but will not ask for a barbaric yawp. I’m sure my colleagues in the classrooms next door will appreciate that.
Parents, you can breathe a sigh of relief, I’m not going to do anything that might inspire your students to disobey.
Walt Whitman & Henry David Thoreau
No, as much as I would love to be Mr. Keating and play Handel’s Water Music over an old record player while my students quote Whitman and kick soccerballs…wait, no I wouldn’t love that. The world we live in is not the world of Dead Poets Society. In truth, I’ll probably be lucky to have one student who actually understands what it means to “suck out all the marrow of life” much less one who thinks it involves reading poetry. My students will most likely be more concerned about volleyball games and football games; about who said what to whom and about whom; about how they will survive the tragedy of a lost teenage love. If I can get them to forget those things long enough to learn the difference between dependent and independent clauses I’ll be happy. Okay, maybe not happy, but I’ll be at least temporarily satisfied. I might even do a little victory dance to the finale of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony — in private, of course.
Not everything in DPS is a waste, though. While I might not do it exactly the way Mr. Keating did, I will ask a question of my students that he asked of his.
What will your verse be?
If you’ve been reading this blog very long you know me. You know the things I value and think are important. I think that question is one of the most important questions that will ever be asked of any of us and it’s a question we should ask ourselves daily. Apart from what we contribute to the world and to our fellow human beings, there really is no other meaning of life. People search for it far and wide, but the truth of the matter is that the meaning of life is what we do with the one we have. The meaning of life is what we make of the things we’ve been given and then what we do with what we made.
What will your verse be?
Some people might think I’d be going a little overboard to ask a question like that of middle school students. Why? It’s not about what they want to BE when they grow up. It’s not about a commitment to a long-term educational or career path. In fact, it has nothing to do with those things at all. The answer to that question is about a daily impact regardless of age, ability, geography, or any of our other limitations (excuses). It’s about what we contribute here, today.
What will your verse be?
Most of you reading this now will just let it pass right on by. Oh, to be sure, maybe you will click the little star and favorite it. Maybe you will comment and tell me I did a good job writing it. Maybe you will even share it. But, after that will you think about it? Will you think about your verse? The one you’ve written? The one you’re writing? The one you have yet to write? You can’t come sit in on my English classes, but if you could I’d ask you to think about it. I’d ask not so that one day you’d say, “wow, that was a really cool lesson he taught.” I’d ask not so you’d remember me. I’d ask so that you you’d walk out the door and consider, at least for a moment, what to do with what you’ve been given.
I’m not Mr. Keating. I don’t want to be. But, if there’s a lesson to be learned from one of his it is this: if all my students get out of my class is a passing grade then why on earth would I want to teach? Passing grades are not why I’m here.
“O Me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.”
― Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass