I’ve taught a few English classes, tutored a few hundred students, run workshops with awful attendance, talked far too enthusiastically about the merits of thinking of writing as a process. I once unironically slammed my fist on a desk and said “writing is fucking hard, man,” because it is, and because I am not what some–or anyone–would call ‘cool.’ I’ve been poor for most of my life. So I thought that I had earned the privilege of calling myself an English teacher, but I was wrong. There was one thing left for me to do, and now that I’ve done it, I understand why it was so important. I finally saw Dead Poets Society.
It was pretty good. I can’t remember the last time I genuinely cried, but it was long enough ago that it could have been because my brother wouldn’t give me my turn on our Gameboy or some other reason stemming from being a child. However, since that ancient time, I have felt the bottom section of my eyes grow moist with some sort of strange discharge. I haven’t cried in a while, but sometimes I leak. Not to overly humanize myself, but my eyes may have leaked a little at the ending of that movie which seemed designed to assault the emotions its viewers. What kind of movie wants its audience to feel? The nerve.
I do have one qualm with the movie. After seeing the strange antics of Mr. Keating and listening to him advocate for the wanton grabbing of calendars–grab the week or something like that–I am left with a complaint: the guy took all the good moves. I’ve never had the inclination to stand on a desk and teach from on high, and I’ve never wanted my students to stand on their desks either. Maybe that’s because their desks all are made of plastic and have wheels, and it wouldn’t be particularly inspiring if one of them snapped their neck while I was trying to teach them to think of the world from a stance three feet higher than normal.
I’m not mad about Dead Poets Society cliche-ing the whole teacher-on-desk teaching style or that carpe diem is the tattoo most likely to appear on the forearm of a writer, probably next to something to do with Harry Potter and a raven. No, I’m miffed that Keating stole my best tactic in my teaching arsenal: whispering to my students when they’re somewhere uncomfortable. That may have made me sound a little stranger than I might want, so allow me to explain.
Like Keating muttering “carpe diem” to his students at they look at the photographed faces of their ancient dead peers, I too whisper strange things to my students while they’re doing other, different strange things. Sometimes, I stalk around my classroom while my kids are working on writing something I probably assigned, and I whisper useful tips like “try reading it out loud” or “avoid comma splices by adding a conjunction and a comma to the independent clause” or “put your phone away or I’ll burn this room down with you in it.” Maybe my whispering isn’t as dramatic as Keating’s, but I think it’s pretty useful and I enjoy it. Or I used to enjoy it before I knew I was inadvertently copying the work of a superior teacher.
I try to avoid doing things that will make me feel feelings. I specify “feelings” there because I do love doing things that allow me to feel cats or soft pillows, but I’m not a fan of feelings. Unfortunately, I can report that Dead Poets Society gave me several feelings, and I may have had to shove my face in a pillow for 45 minutes moaning incoherently. I am not skilled enough to articulate my feelings, so strange noises and pillows are what works for me.
The good that came of watching this movie was that I can finally say I’m a real English teacher because now I know all the cliche moves in the collective teacherly arsenal. Now I know what to avoid unless I want to actually inspire my students, which I don’t think is in my job description. Now that I’ve seen what a teacher can do to inspire a love of art in students, I can avoid doing exactly that so none of my kids end up like me.