“This is a battle, a war, and the casualties could be your hearts and souls.”
Last Friday, after a long day walking around London, we ordered curries and sought a little cinematic comfort food. We settled eventually on the quintessential Inspirational Teacher film: Dead Poets Society.
I remembered the movie as fun but philosophically naïve. As guiding principles go, “carpe diem” seems to have all the intellectual heft of a Dos Equis commercial. I mean, I’d love to seize every moment, but when am I supposed to fit in laundry, groceries, and thank-you notes?
As a teacher, I’ve found my work nourishing, and occasionally magical, but never terribly heroic. It’s a quiet, daily grind. So where does Hollywood conjure up these human motivational posters? Isn’t the inspirational teacher just soothing movie gibberish, like talking animal sidekicks, or One True Love?
I don’t know—maybe it was the London exhaustion, or the freshness of Robin Williams’ suicide, or the British sun just setting at 9pm. But Dead Poets Society wasn’t quite the fluff I remembered.
It unfolds at a posh northeastern prep school, where the sons of wealthy families ready themselves for prestigious, preordained careers. The lily-white students—all boys, naturally—seem to enjoy every privilege life can offer, except for one: decent teachers. Early on, we see a montage of their instructors, and it might as well be a parade of grandfather clocks. Every lesson is dry as dust. They tick-tock through Latin declensions and trig formulas, chiming hourly with vague and urgent warnings against fun.
Enter Robin Williams, as the colorful Mr. Keating.
His classes make for great cinema, if dubious pedagogy. (I’ve submitted some suspect lesson plans in my day, but his appear to be little more than “CARPE DIEM” scrawled on a napkin.) Still, you can see why the boys love him, why they believe so fervently in his romantic worldview. These aristocratic kids feel stuck in safe, scripted lives, and he’s offering them something else. Rebellion. Poetry. Homoerotic bonding caves.
It’s all pretty compelling.
But if Keating is truly preaching a radical rejection of society’s demands—if he’s indeed a stick of dynamite, and not just a harmless sparkler—then there’s a price that must be paid. “Society” isn’t some faceless monolith. It’s your parents, your school, your classmates. To steer the boys in a new direction, he must oppose the old one. And he’s got to ask the boys to oppose it, too—to turn against the safe, well-worn path, and against the people urging them down it.
Halfway through the movie, I remembered: Oh, right. They go there.
A student approaches Keating, torn between his love of acting and his father’s insistence that he give it up. “You have to show him who you are, what your heart is,” Keating urges. “You are not an indentured servant!” All year, he’s framed life as a struggle between beauty and cowardice. Here, that ideology means pushing the boy straight into a confrontation with his father.
And the next day, in the aftermath, the boy kills himself.
The teacher’s power to inspire is like any power—which is to say, dangerous. It means tangling yourself in the threads of family and friendship, enmeshing yourself in the complications of a young person’s life. It leaves you vulnerable to conflict, to heartbreak, and to doing inadvertent harm. Changing a kid’s life means making yourself a part of it.
And sometimes that leads to a godawful mess.
Sitting in front of the TV, watching Williams’ performance, I realized how different I am as a teacher. Yeah, I love my students. But I’m cautious by nature, wary of contradicting a parent. I’ve been soaking in the PC bath too long to ever say to a student, “Just tell your father how you feel!” I’d ask questions, explore options, and try to help the kid find his own framing for the situation. I’m not about to grab the reins and try to steer.
I don’t aim to “change lives” in that way. Not really.
The film ended, more touchingly than I remembered. We climbed upstairs, tired as you can only be in a town two millennia old.
“I expected more screen time for Robin Williams,” my wife said as we brushed our teeth. “The kids are really the center of the movie.”
It’s true. And it works, because the magic of Dead Poets Society is the chemistry of its young cast. The inexperienced, teenaged actors manage to gel beautifully, the way a good class does. Even more than Williams, they’re the soul of the film.
That’s when I realized. It’s not hard to picture Williams—by every account, a man of exceptional generosity—taking those kids under his wing and helping them. To find joy and purpose in the script. To carve meaning from their work. To follow their instincts onscreen. To achieve spontaneity and warmth and a sort of living poetry.
It’s not hard, in other words, to picture Williams as the Keating in their lives.
In a few weeks I’ll be starting work at a posh secondary school for boys, where I’m sure I’ll remain my cautious self, a sort of well-meaning anti-Keating. But as I fell asleep that night, my last thought was this: though every inspirational figure risks creating snarls and messes that he can’t fix—Keating, Williams, and any teacher out there striving to make that over-hyped but undeniably spectacular thing we call “a difference”—it’s easy to see the beauty in the way those lives get tangled up together.