McAllister – Dead Poet’s Society (1989)

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When I was contemplating the film, Dead Poet’s Society I wanted to make special mention of Mr. McAllister, the Latin professor at Welton Academy.  He is not the dynamic teacher that Mr. Keating is at the school, but he is no less authentic.  He is absolutely himself, a man with a love of language who is comfortable in the traditional methods that he uses to teach it.  He of a kindly disposition, befriending John Keating and sharing a relationship of colleague to colleague.  He goes about his duties in the school, supervising the boys when needed (while enjoying his pipe).  He strikes me as a happy, kind, grandfatherly-type of teacher.  He knows that boys will be boys, when to growl and when to leave them be.  He doesn’t need to be mean to keep the students in line.  He doesn’t need to be dynamic in his teaching either.

McAllister is a small, supporting character in Dead Poet’s society.  There are a couple of key scenes that he appears in.  During one meal he and Keating share the following exchange:

McAllister: “Show me the heart unfettered by foolish dreams and I’ll show you a happy man.”
John Keating: “But only in their dreams can men be truly free. ‘Twas always thus, and always thus will be.”
McAllister: Tennyson?
John Keating: No, Keating.

And that is who McAllister is.  He has found himself and he is content.

The second key scene happens near the end of the movie.  As John Keating is packing his things, he looks out of the window to see McAllister walking on one of the outside paths, conjugating verbs with his students.  The two teachers share a moment of acknowledgement.  Yes,  John Keating is leaving the school, but he has left a small impact.  A man like McAllister can stretch the boundaries a little.  He is still conjugating Latin verbs, and still enjoying his teaching, just taking it a little bit out of the ordinary by taking the lesson outside.

 

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John Keating – Dead Poet’s Society (1989)

bf07db6e45549504e8e6fb34bd80ba64I  hesitated to write a post about John Keating (portrayed by Robin Williams) in 1989’s Dead Poet’s Society.  It seems like a very obvious pick from a movie that has inspired many since it’s release.  I remember when this movie came out, I was still a high school student myself and it came as a huge statement.  This was a movie that said something.  Carpe Diem (Seize the Day) became THE statement to make.  I re-watched this movie this past month, looking at it from different eyes.   What does this movie look like now to me?  Who is John Keating to me as teacher looking at a teacher, rather than a student looking at a teacher?

John Keating is the kind of teacher that most students enjoy having.  He is different, a break from the mundane expectations and routines of traditional learning. He is first introduced to the students of Welton Academy in the fall of 1959 as the new professor of English literacy.  He is a graduate of Welton himself and has a list of impressive credentials.  On his first day teaching the senior class he takes them by surprise, calling them out to the hallway to view the photos of the previous graduates of Welton.  This is where he first introduces them to the notion of Carpe Diem, reminding them at the end of class that one day they will be like all these boys who once lived and roamed the halls of Welton, they will be worm food, pushing up the daisies, dead and gone.  Later, the boys discussing the class reacted with the range of “it was weird” to “it was different”.  And different continues on in Mr. Keating’s class.  From tearing out the introductory pages of their poetry textbook, to standing on their desktops to get a different view of the world, one never knows what they will get when they are in Mr. Keating’s class.  They do know it will be different.

What is the effect of all of this ‘different’?  For Knox Overstreet, he is given the courage to pursue the girl of his dreams.  For Charlie Dalton, he takes the message too far too many times, causing him to be expelled from Welton.  For Todd Anderson, he finds the courage to speak out and break through his shyness.  For Neil Perry, his courage to rebel against his father’s plans and pursue his own dreams, brings out his frustration to the point of suicide.  And this is where I struggle with John Keating.  Knowing what I do about different philosophies of education, where is the place for a teacher like John Keating at a school like Welton Academy?  There is no doubt that he is authentic to his love of poetry.  He is authentic in being himself.  He is authentic in that he cares deeply for his students to be who they are, just as he is who he is.  But there is a value in knowing where you are too.  Welton Academy is a Prep. School in New England.  Parents pay to have their boys schooled in the motto of “Tradition, Honor, Discipline, Excellence”.  Is there a way for John Keating to hold true to who he is while still balancing the pillars of the school?  He is clearly  bothered by Dalton’s antics as going too far.  He reminds him that sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.  Keating knows the value of a good education and wants Charlie to continue at school, teasing him that if nothing else he would continue the opportunity to attend his classes.

The tragedy of Neil Perry’s death is one that deeply affects Keating.  He is the one who takes the fall for the school.  They put the onus on him.  In the school’s eyes Keating is the one who caused Neil to step away from his father’s wishes, he is responsible.  What they don’t see is how deeply troubled Mr. Keating is by the turn of events.  The truth is Keating encouraged Neil to speak with his father.  Neil lied, telling Keating that he did, thinking he could get away with it.  Neil’s account of things compared to the reality of things distorted how Mr. Keating viewed Neil’s life.  Upon learning of Neil’s death, Mr. Keating becomes tormented.  This is not what he wanted either, and now he has to take the fall.  I wonder how Mr. Keating proceeds from here?  Does he continue in teaching once he has left Welton?  What kind of a teacher is he?  What impact does Neil’s death have on him?  There is a balance in authentic teaching with staying true to yourself and being aware of staying true to the limits of your school and community.  Is there a place where Keating can do both?

One of the most uncomfortable scenes for me to watch is the one where Mr. Keating pulls out a poem from Todd Anderson.  Anderson is extremely shy and self-conscious.  After crumpling up many attempts at poetry, he decides to come to class and say he didn’t do it.  Any other teacher at Welton would have given Todd a failing grade and let it stay at that.  But this is John Keating’s class and Mr. Keating does not let Todd off the hook so easily.  He reads a piece of poetry describing a barbaric YAWP, asking Todd to Yawp, taunting him until he shouts through the room.  He then has Todd describe the picture of Walt Whitman that hangs from the walls.  The method that follow is certainly unconventional and Todd begins to speak with beautiful, poetic language.  How Mr. Keating works with Todd has me hope he does so because he knows Todd well.  I question how he embarrasses him, a boy already very shy and awkward.  Is it authentic to pull something like this out of a student?  Or, is it more authentic to find another way to bring him out of his shyness in comfort?  Now, because this is a movie, it works.  In real life, I’m not so sure it would.  This is something that could make you lose the relationship with your student.  I remember though, when I was a teenager watching this part of the movie, I thought, “Wow!  That’s amazing!”.  Is Mr. Keating then an authentic teacher?  Or, is he just what Robin Williams and Peter Weir (the director) wanted in the character, the kind of teacher they always wished they had had?  Maybe he is a bit of both.

Ms. Norbury – Mean Girls (2004)

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Tina Fey’s portrayal of Ms. Norburry in 2004’s Mean Girls is an authentic teacher is a very modern way.  She is a supporting player in the film, portraying the protagonist Cady’s high school math teacher.  Cady is new to the American high school scene, having spent her life thus far home schooled while living with her parents in Africa.

When we first meet Ms. Norburry she comes in on the first day of school and quickly demonstrates that teachers are in fact real people.  She has just gotten divorced.  Coffee spills all over her.  She mistakes the African American girl in her room as the new student from Africa, instead of Cady.  She tries to cover her embarrassments and maintain composure with a smile.

As the film progresses we find she often uses humor (a combination of wit and sarcasm) which gives this teacher a very human edge often missing in teacher portrayals.  She says what we often think.  There are other elements of the reality of teaching in the American high school added in.  In one scene we discover that Ms. Norburry works a second job waitressing to make ends meet (wearing a very embarrassing button covered green vest).

norburyThe importance of Sharon Norburry in Mean Girls is in her relationship to Cady.  Cady is someone who struggles to find her true place in the American High School social scene.  We know from the get go that Cady is very a smart, academically oriented student.  She is in 11th grade taking 12th grade calculus.  Ms. Norburry picks up on Cady’s intelligence and makes attempts to come along side her and encourage her in academics.  We can imagine that Ms. Norburry knows a thing or two about being a smart woman in a field traditionally frowned upon by men and social peers.  She teaches high school mathematics.  As Cady gets caught up in the social life of high school, she allows herself to intentionally begin failing her courses (in the mistaken effort of gaining a boy’s attention).  Ms. Norburry sees through Cady’s ruse and attempts to reach out to her.  At one point she speaks out stating, “I know having a boyfriend might seem like the only thing important to you right now, but you don’t have to dumb yourself down in order for a guy to like you.”  A point ignored by Cady.

As the movies winds up to its climax all hell breaks loose in the school.  A burn book created by Queen Bee Regina (Cady’s friend and nemesis) is released out into the school by Regina as a way of getting back at Cady.  The principal of the school gathers all the female students together in the gymnasium to try to sort out their behaviour.  Feeling very male and ill equipped to reach out to the female population, he turns the meeting over to Ms. Norburry, who he believes would be better able to relate to these girls.  What happens next is a moment of improvised teaching brilliance and honesty.  Ms. Norburry is able to redirect the anger of the girls into some soul searching work.  She takes the thoughts and intentions behind the burn book and turns it around on themselves.  She makes it very clear that what is written in the book is what they are thinking and doing to each other in secret and that it is not okay.  One of the most quoted lines from the movies happens here: “OK, so we’re all here ’cause of this book, right? Well, I don’t know who wrote this book, but you all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it OK for guys to call you sluts and whores.”  What follows is a time where these girls are able to be real with each other.  The masks of high school are dropped and they are (for the most part) able to open up.

Although Cady doesn’t come clean about her involvement with Regina and the messages in the burn book at that point, she does begin to become more real.  She begins to take note of how her actions have affected herself and others, including Ms. Norburry (about whom she wrote a very nasty message).  She joins the Mathletes in an attempt to bring up her failing calculus grade, allowing her and Ms. Norburry to bridge the gap in their relationship as well.  Ms. Norburry could have chosen to allow Cady to fail, but in a demonstration of how teachers can put aside their own feelings to teach and guide their students she comes alongside Cady, forgives her and encourages her in her journey.  One of my favorite lines here demonstrates how well she knows and relates to her student Cady just before the Mathlete competition:

Ms. Norbury: You nervous?
Cady: Yes.
Ms. Norbury: Don’t be. You can do this. There’s nothing to break your focus, because not one of those Marymount boys is cute.

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Tina Fey created and wrote the movie, Mean Girls after reading Rosalind Wiseman’s book, Queen Bees and Wannabees.

200px-QueenbeeszThe book is a non-fiction book, created to address the very real school issues of girl fighting, cliques, and gossip.  Tina Fey turned the heart of the message of that book into this movie.  What I find interesting is the character she portrays, this teacher, sees the social battles that these girls are facing and tries to guide them through it.  She was once one of them.  This is the hidden curriculum that can often be ignored.  Yes, teenage girls are at school to learn, but teenage girls are also at school for their social life.  That is often where their focus is.  So many of us have walked that journey and navigating the halls of high school are difficult, often shaping our perceptions of ourselves for years afterwards.  Having navigated these halls herself, Ms. Norburry knows that there is so much more to life than those 4 years.  These girls are better than how they treat themselves and each other.  She wants them to know that it is okay to be who they are, they can be smart and successful and still be likable in the end.