Note: This post first appeared in the week following Robin Williams' death in 2014. It is republished here because, well, this morning was one of those cold, uninspiring ones for me, and maybe for you, too.
Cold Mornings and Dead Poets
When I was twenty-three, somewhere midway through my second year of teaching at Georgetown Prep, I woke early on a dark winter morning feeling uninspired. Boarding school life is exhausting, and it had exhausted me in a particularly rough way that week. I’d had a recent disciplinary bout with a student who lived on my floor—one that got somewhat ugly, ultimately revealing the underside of his wildly dysfunctional family—combined with a grueling pile of grading ninth-grade essays, all while preparing for an off-campus retreat. The steam heat hissed, and the darkness seemed to enclose my austere, cave-like faculty dorm room in a clenched fist.
Having little desire to get up and face the onslaught of adolescent rebellion that marks every day of a teacher’s life—especially the all-day variety that marks a boarding school teacher’s life—I remember lying in my bed and staring at the red indicator lamp on the smoke detector. Finally, after several minutes of contemplating potential ways that I could escape my responsibilities that day, I kicked myself out of bed. And I found inspiration in the only place where inspiration could be found on such mornings: I put on my warm running clothes and stuck headphones in my ears. I ran outside in the light snow, jogging from one pool of orange, sodium vapor lamplight to the next, listening to the soundtrack from Dead Poets Society.
I saw the movie for the first time in high school, when I was at the age so eloquently and passionately portrayed by the likes of Ethan Hawke and his fictional classmates at the Welton School. Like so many other prep school boys of my generation, it played like a prophecy and a mantra and a prayer. It was a drama of such intimate and heartbreaking revelation, playing out with full transparency the simultaneously manic and mournful psyche of young men’s hearts. And Maurice Jarre’s music—that haunting range of poignant composition—went similarly from calm introspection to uplifting, soaring inspiration.
The movie is not an intrinsically happy one; however, it is an uplifting one in many ways. Thus I found it to be such an honest and sympathetic accompaniment to my own brooding adolescence, and that of the boys growing up around me, and likely that of countless others. In fact, it was when Kirkus Reviews called my novel “…evocative of Dead Poets Society,” that I knew I’d done at least something right.
And so, to go back to that dark, uninspired morning, as the quieter strains of “Carpe Diem” and “To the Cave” gave way to “Keating’s Triumph,” I found the pace of my jogging increase to a run and finally to a sprint. As the sun rose, so did my spirit, and I returned to my dorm building in an entirely different state of mind. I showered and dressed and fixed my tie, and it was just as I took my first sip of coffee that the morning noises began. Opening my door, I stood leaning into the corridor as the onslaught of adolescents began to rise drowsily from their beds, stumbling clumsily out into the hallway on their way to the shower with sleepy eyes and mumbled hellos. And I was able, as I sought each morning, to greet each of them with a smile and a chipper “Good morning!” And from there, I was able to bound headlong into another day teaching at a school to which I will always be grateful. Because Georgetown Prep, its wonderful faculty, and the young men from the classes of 2003 through 2007 taught me how to be a teacher.
It was early this week that I heard of the death of Robin Williams on the radio, and immediately I recalled those words that the fictional John Keating offered to his class: that one day each of us would “stop breathing and die…that we would eventually find ourselves “fertilizing daffodils.” Normally I am not one who mourns celebrities who pass from the world in a confused muddle of drug addition and alcoholism. However, his death bothered me because he will forever be Mr. Keating to me, and Mr. Keating was an inspiration. During the darkest, most difficult years of my young adult life, after I quit the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, forfeiting my long-held (if self-delusional) military aspirations, Mr. Keating kept me going. The strains of the Dead Poets Society soundtrack pushed me forward toward this new, more humble path ahead. In the way that foolish, egotistical young men of nineteen do, I needed a romanticized vision of myself. And since the dazzling, noble, uniformed, seagoing patriotic hero had proved to be the wrong image, I looked to a new one: the humble but admired khaki-clad teacher, equipped with chalkboard, textbook, tie, and briefcase, ready each morning to shape minds and hearts.
Well, of course it was an equally delusional self-image, but what nineteen-year-old doesn’t thrive on delusional, idealized self-images?
The truth is, the fictional Mr. Keating was not a particularly good teacher by any conventional measure. As much as I idolized this image of the “hero-inspirer” as a teenager, I know now after more than a dozen years in the vocation that one cannot in good conscience march into a classroom hell-bent on bending the minds of impressionable kids 180 degrees away from the conventions and culture in which they’ve been raised. (At least not all at once.) One cannot run his classroom like a football practice or a series of inspirational locker room speeches. One cannot rely wholly on altering cardiac patterns and arousing hormonal surges to inspire study and knowledge and passion. The film acknowledges this, of course, in the course of its plot: the extremity of Mr. Keating’s methods are outright dangerous to the boys, one in particular. His methods encourage and enable a degree of unmitigated countercultural rebellion bound to end in tragedy in such a constricted, tightly wound culture. It seems it might be more about him than about the boys, and shame on Mr. Keating for “keeping a secret” with his students as he carelessly encourages them to break all the rules and sneak out at night to the “old Indian cave.” The real world classroom is not the isolated cocoon of Mr. Keating’s chamber of intellectual wonders. No, in the real world we must be far more careful—we must remember that the kids in our charge, as grown up as they might appear physically, are really still kids. They are not, as a knowing principal reminded me once during an important conversation, “little adults,” and we cannot treat them as such.
So yes, much has changed in my life as a teacher. I certainly don’t view my vocation or my profession through the romanticized lens that colored my early teaching days (and probably those of many other young men and women in the field). In many ways I look at Mr. Keating as a sympathetic, well-meaning, but ultimately reckless teacher—one who should have been far more careful with the predictably volatile mix of pheromones and testosterone at work in the minds and hearts of young men. But in a lot of ways, I was probably the same way as a younger teacher, as so many younger teachers are.
And so it remains true that Mr. John Keating—who is not Robin Williams, mind you, but whom Robin Williams brought to life with such passion and eloquence and uplifting fervor—likely will continue to inspire young men and women to begin the path toward the classroom. Once there for a few years, they’ll realize like I did that teaching isn’t really like that—except when, on rare occasion, it is. But I bet they’ll still smile when they watch that movie and hear that soundtrack, even years later.
It might even help them muster a similar smile on a cold, uninspired, snowy morning, when that’s exactly what they’ll need to make a kid’s day extraordinary.