A year ago when I had to abruptly give up teaching due to the sudden onset of a terrible bout of anxiety and depression, I doubted that I would ever go back into a classroom again. Now that I’m feeling better, and am ready to get back to teaching, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about just exactly who “Mr. Walker” really is, and who he really isn’t. I wrote down some thoughts earlier today that I’ll share with you now. I know my fellow educators can relate, but I think there’s some good truth in here no matter what your career might be.
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 or she had and every teacher wishes he or she could be (or, maybe 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. I’m not going to let them stand on my desk. I can’t afford to pay for the books and the school’s insurance probably wouldn’t cover the medical bills.
In high school 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 harmonicist (is that a word?) or 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 and administrators can breathe a sigh of relief because I’m not going to do anything that might inspire students to disobey or rebel.
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 soccer balls…wait, 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?
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. Reading great literature puts each of us in tune with our fellow human beings; with our pasts, our presents, and our futures. It reminds us that we are not the first people to inhabit this earth, we will not be the last, and we will never be the center focus of humanity. Writing, and learning to write well, puts each of us in touch with others. It allows us to express our thoughts, our fears, our hopes, and our dreams in such a way that, hopefully, highlights the commonalities we all share rather than exacerbating our differences.
Some people might think I’d be going a little overboard to ask a question like that of students, especially high school students, in an English class. 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 or excuses. It’s about what we contribute here, today. Educators in the humanities have both a unique ability and a unique responsibility to ask those sorts of questions and glean meaningful answers from their students.
Most students might just let the question pass right on by. Some might think about it for a moment or two; some might answer it; and a few might even share it. But, after that will they think about their verse? The one they’ve written? The one they’re writing? The one they have yet to write? I will ask every student in my English classes to consider that question. I will ask not so that one day they will say, “Wow! That was a really cool lesson he taught.” I will ask not to be remembered. I will ask so that they might walk out the classroom door and consider, at least for a moment, what to do with what they’ve been given. Language, both spoken and especially written, connects us; and literature elevates us. They hold, arguably, the most prominent place in our development as human beings. That is why they are fundamental in the education process, and that is why I am so passionate about teaching them.
I’m not Mr. Keating. I don’t want to be. But, if there’s a lesson to be learned from one of his lessons, 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. If I could be so forward as to sum up my teaching philosophy–really, my life’s philosophy–in a verse from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, it would be this: that the answer to our most basic questions of life and identity is “That you are here—that life exists, and identity; That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.”