The one movie that perhaps has the greatest impact on my life is Dead Poets Society, where Robin Williams plays the part of Professor John Keating — a radical teacher in a school that valued tradition above all else.
My first encounter with it was in 1989 when my high school English teacher (whom I consider Mr. Keating’s real life counterpart), showed us the movie. He wheeled in a TV and Betamax player set, and around forty students crowded around it trying to see the action on the small screen and listen to the dialogue amidst the noisy chatter of some less-interested classmates. Needless to say, I didn’t really understand the story that first time and only had a very rough idea of it. But I was intrigued and wanted to watch it again when I had the chance.
I had that chance when I was in college, this time in the audio-visual room which was equipped with a large screen and better sound system. I came out inspired, even considering the possibility of being a teacher, one of the last things I would ever dream of doing.
My childhood classmates might probably remember that I was very quiet in class, but not because I wasn’t interested or didn’t want to participate. I had a huge problem. Like Todd Anderson, one of the characters in the movie, I stuttered badly when I talked in public and I was so embarrassed by it that I mostly kept to myself in class and would rarely volunteer to do anything that involved reciting or talking.
I watched, enraptured, as Mr. Keating broke the self-imposed mental barriers in Todd’s mind, and somehow I knew that the barriers in my mind were broken as well. When the characters shouted “Carpe Diem! Seize the Day!” I shouted along with them as well (in my mind, of course). There was a sense of exhilaration, joy and freedom and I knew then that I wanted to live a life like Mr. Keating’s — to inspire others to feel what I felt, to learn to trust themselves and experience their own greatness. I eventually did become a teacher.
My opening spiel on the first day of my first year as a teacher was a shameless copy of one of Mr. Keating’s lectures when he says, “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion.And medicine, law, business, engineering – these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love – these are what we stay alive for.”
I also shamelessly copied the stunt of standing on the table to demonstrate that we should learn to look at things from other points of view. Later in the year, I showed them the movie and we all had a good laugh when they recognized what I did.
One of the best lessons in the movie was a courtyard scene. Mr. Keating asks three boys to walk around the courtyard. At first, they walk at their own pace, but pretty soon, they were marching in step with each other while the other students started clapping in rhythm. Mr. Keating jumps in to join the boys and starts chanting while the others echo his chants. Then he calls a halt to the entire activity. He then uses this example to show how easy it is for us to conform, and to want to conform to the status quo because of the pressures around us.
We may start out walking at our own pace, but eventually, unconsciously, we find that we are marching to a different drumbeat. We strive for standards of success that that others have set for us. We scramble towards goals and dreams that are not our own. We gravitate towards beliefs, customs, practices that others deem “normal” and “acceptable” even though we can’t understand why they are so. Against these, Mr. Keating warns, “Now we all have a great need for acceptance, but you must trust that your beliefs are unique, your own, even though others may think them odd or unpopular, even though the herd may go, ‘That’s baaaaad!’ Robert Frost said, ‘Two roads diverged in the wood and I, I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.’” Indeed that one idea has made a very big difference in my life.
As I go through the different tributes and messages in the aftermath of the tragic news of Williams’ death, I see that people remember him for different reasons and different roles. To some, he is Patch Adams. To others, he is Peter Pan, or Mrs. Doubtfire, or Mork or Aladdin’s Genie, or one of many other roles that have touched people in one way or another.
But to me, he will always be O Captain, My Captain.
Farewell, and good journey.
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.
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