I 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.