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Monday, September 05, 2011

Monday Matinee: Dead Poets Society

One of my favourite classes in high school was English class. As someone who read books almost every day, and who developed a talent and passion for writing, it's only natural that it would end up being a class that I would put my all into. I even won the eighth grade faculty award for the subject, so clearly it had to have some influence in my life.

Certainly, any class where I was required to write essays, stories, and written projects were classes that I seemed to excel in. English, history, creative writing, media class. Those were all subjects that I really took a keen interest in, and managed to get through with little difficulty. Conversely, math and science were classes that I really did not like very much at all, and as a result, I did very poorly in. But that's just the way my brain was wired, I suppose.

Despite my love for English, there were a couple of aspects to English class that I really did not like at all, or liked very little. While most of the books that I was asked to read for the curriculum were enjoyable and interesting, there were a few that put me to sleep. I know I talk about being proud to be Canadian, and I love almost everything about this country, but oh my goodness, the year we did Canadian literature was the year I wanted to snooze through class.

(On a side note, maybe that's why I want to be a published author so prove that even us Canadians can come up with captivating and enlightening tales that keep the reader glued to each page.)

And then there was the unit that we had to do on poetry and prose, which was another area of English that until a few years ago, I had absolutely no tolerance for.

I should note that not all the lessons we did on poetry were all that bad. We once had to listen to Top 40 radio and interpret the lyrics of a particular song, and I actually think it was that assignment that may have inspired me to create the Sunday Jukebox feature here.

The majority of the poetry lesson was learning about stanzas, and writing poems, and learning the difference between prose and poetry, and how we were talking about taking the road less travelled by, and how it has made all the difference, blah, blah, blah.

No disrespect to Robert Frost.

But then, I came across the poem, O Captain! My Captain!

And that poem got me thinking about poetry and how powerful it could be. I can consider my own skills in poetry to be adequate, but I consider myself a better storyteller, so I never really put any focus in improving my poetry skills. But, I have to hand it to Walt Whitman, who wrote the poem back in 1865 after the assassination of then American president Abraham Lincoln, he had the chops to come up with an amazing poem.

I did include a photo of the poem in this entry, but in case it's hard to read, here it is in full.

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Maybe some of you might just see it as just another poem by some dead guy, but I liked it.

And apparently, there was a certain movie that was released in late Spring 1989 that featured this poem in a number of instances. It was a movie that featured a teacher that used unorthodox teaching methods, but yet inspired his classroom filled with students to think for themselves and really come into their own as individuals.

That film was 'Dead Poets Society', and the screenplay won an Academy Award in 1990. That screenplay was penned by Tom Schulman, and it was loosely based on his experiences at an all-boys preparatory school in Tennessee, where he attended.

And the whole movie is based on one simple phrase.

Carpe diem.

Carpe diem is a a phrase that could be found in a poem by Horace, and the basic meaning of that phrase is 'seize the day'. Take control of your own destiny. Live as if your future is uncertain.

At the Welton Academy Preparatory School, the idea of carpe diem doesn't seem possible. Run by headmaster Gale Nolan, the school makes no hesitation in priding itself in its values of tradition, honour, discipline, and excellence.

Even though some of the students of the school seem to feel differently.

Although we don't get to see every student in the school, we are introduced to seven of them. There's Neil (Robert Sean Leonard), Todd (Ethan Hawke), Knox (Josh Charles), Charlie (Gale Hansen), Richard (Dylan Kussman), Steven (Allelon Ruggiero, and Gerard (James Waterston). They are all senior students and they are at the age where they are questioning the futures that have supposedly been laid out for them. In particular with Neil and Todd.

Neil had always been expected to go into the field of medicine (something that is quite ironic, given that Robert Sean Leonard currently plays a doctor in the television series House), but has a secret desire to go into the field of acting. Todd on the other hand is destined to become a lawyer, when all he wants to do is write.

Certainly I know a few people who were pressured into following a career that they themselves did not want to pursue. Sometimes parents have a tendency to live through their children, and some even try to salvage their lost dreams by forcing them upon their own kids, regardless of whether they want it or not. This was especially hard for Neil in particular, but I'll get into that a little bit later.

This school year, the seniors happen to have a new English teacher. John Keating (in one of Robin Williams' dramatic roles). His teaching methods as compared to the other educators at Welton are unorthodox, daring, and in all honestly don't seem to fit in well with the message that the headmaster was trying put forth in regards to the school. Somehow, though, I don't think the students of Welton minded too much.

Some of those unorthodox methods of teaching included;

  • telling his students to refer to him as 'O Captain My Captain', if they feel daring
  • whistling the 1812 Overture in class
  • ripping a redundant introductory page right out of their poetry textbooks
  • standing on top of their desks to discover a new way of looking at the world

The teaching methods of one John Keating might have been out of the ordinary, but it really made English class much more fun for the students. And if anything, Keating's presence brought forth two major developments.

For one, it caused the re-creation of the 'Dead Poets Society', a literary club that Keating himself had been a part of in his youth, and they have secret meetings in a cavern on the school grounds.

More importantly, Keating would often take the class outside of the classroom, urging his students to follow their own passions and to live each day as if it counted.

Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

Quite the powerful line. It was actually ranked at position 95 on AFI's greatest movie quotes, and it was such a great message. The line is subject to different interpretations, depending on the viewer, but the way I like to see it is that Keating wanted the boys to grab hold on every moment and not let go. He also encouraged his students to follow what drives them and to do what they want to, not because someone else wants them to. They were the only ones who had the power to make their lives the way they wanted it.

As a result of this, he actively encouraged his students to follow their passions. He takes Todd on various activities through self-expression to become a better writer, as he believes that he shows great potential in becoming a fantastic one. He instills a love of poetry in Knox, who ends up writing a poem for a girl he has feelings for, which causes the two to become even closer.

There are some blips along the way (such as when Charlie prints an unauthorized article for the school paper about how females should be admitted as students in Welton, which leads to a standoff at the school inquiry about the article.

After this moment, Keating tells the students to be 'wise, not stupid' when it comes to protesting against the system. A message that becomes really evident at the conclusion of the film (which if you've read any of the Monday Matinee posts at all, you'll know that I NEVER spoil endings). Though, given how powerful the ending was, I was really tempted to post it. I really, really was.

However, just as things seemed to be going well, and Keating was developing an instant rapport with his students, a tragedy happened that really set forth the development of the conclusion of the film, and put Keating's own character into question.

It all began when a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is put on, and Neil really wanted a role in the play. But he also knew that his overbearing father would disapprove of it. Regardless, he tries out for the play, auditioning for the role of Puck. However, when his father discovers what his son did, he orders him to withdraw from the play. Torn between making his father happy and seeking out his own desire to become an actor, he talks to Keating about what he should do. A well-meaning Keating gives Neil the advice that he should sit down and talk to his father to make him understand how he feels. Sound advice, which I myself would give in this case.

For whatever reason, Neil cannot find the courage within himself to tell his father the truth, so he decides to go behind his back to perform in the play anyways. For the record, the play went off well, and Neil definitely had acting chops. Had he been allowed to pursue it, he could have been great. Unfortunately, his father arrived at the end of the show, not looking at all pleased.
He was furious with him, he was. Going to enroll him in a military school, he was. It will prepare him for Harvard, it would. Become a doctor he would. His father would make sure of it. Despite Neil's protests about not wanting that career, and wanting to be an actor, his father seemingly had the last word. Which makes the fate of Neil to become one of the biggest tragedies in the whole movie (figuratively and literally), and set forth the events that would ultimately lead to the future of John Keating's teaching career at Welton.

As I said before, I won't spoil the ending of this film, because I really think it's one of those films that you really have to watch from beginning to end. Trust me, it is that good of a movie.

But you know, just going back to the point I was talking about in regards to parents who seemingly live through their children. In a lot of ways, I think this was the case between Neil and his father. It almost seemed like it was predetermined for Neil to have this set path in motion, and nothing was going to stand in his way.

That is until a caring, well-meaning teacher stepped in and tried to help him see that the only one who was in control of Neil's destiny was Neil himself. And although Neil's destiny didn't end up the way that anyone had planned or wanted to happen, at least for that one brief moment, Neil had enough courage in himself to do what he felt was the right thing.

In this world, we see dozens of examples of people vicariously living through their kids for whatever reason. You see it at sporting events. You see it in academics. Hell, you see it on that disturbing TLC show 'Toddlers & Tiaras', which is worthy of another blog entry in itself somewhere down the line.

The point is that having dreams for your children is one thing. Practically forcing your dreams onto your children when they have their own goals in life is not acceptable under any circumstances. As far as I'm concerned, people should have the ability to make their own destinies and seize their own moments.

John Keating understood this, and made it his mission to teach his students life lessons on top of the lessons on stanzas, verses, and prose.

And in my opinion, I think that's one of the things that makes a really good teacher. Seizing the moment. Carpe diem.

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