‘O Captain! My Captain!’ for many is not synonymous with Walt Whitman’s elegy written to the then assassinated Abraham Lincoln. It is but a scene in Robin Williams’ classroom that accommodates rebellion as a lesson in life. As a wide-eyed ardent lover of Dead Poets Society: The Movie, I had hoped my trip to the literature classroom would be the same.
Sadly, nothing could be further a lie in my dark-academic fantasies. Dead Poets Society, while a seductive approach to understanding literature, is not a true appropriation of what studying Whitman feels like in our drab, everyday college classrooms, stifled within the four walls.
However, comparing it to reality is often a mistake. This is because Mr. Keating’s classroom is an artistic form of rebellion, meant to encourage free-thinking in the formative years of students on their journey to becoming adults. It is in the chaos of his class that students are allowed to run free and live vicariously by his instruct –
“Tear your notebook pages, jog down the garden, write your own poetry.”
It would be a sin to not mention here, the gorgeous New England autumn that adds its own layer of peace and serenity to the fantasy.
The artiste in the young boys finds a new and exciting path to explore in the secret and rousing meetings (admittedly poetic), where they discuss the legacy of legendary poets, and find a space to proffer their own dabble in poetry. Education in this elite world is pivotal, but also a weapon that is wielded for both good and bad.
In this world of students held in tight reigns by the edicts of this canonical institution, only in John Keating do we find the personification of an ideal teacher. In his way of teaching, there is no right or wrong, poetry is free as it should be and classes are unconventional, (book-tearing included). In the enigmatic acting of Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard, the conflict of emotions reflects on their face, showing the terrifying and new territory of teenage characterized by discovery. The potential hidden in these students is at war with the brutal world at large, but the presence of just one single character gives them the space to flourish and find their individuality.
The legacy of Whitman’s actual poem, as it calls out to the people of the world to change and live and grow, is also a homage to the great soul of Lincoln. This legacy is carried forward in one teacher’s visions of appreciating literature as life and in one club of students youthful vigor, and hope.
In the finale, when the students stand on their desk, the final call to their ‘captain’, watchers are moved to weep (me especially); over the darkness of suicide that looms over the school, and the new hope that springs from the stubborn grit on the face of students, determined to carry forth their teacher’s message. It is not a wonder that this finale scene has gone down in the history of movies as an iconic scene painted on the silver screen. With emotions waging in the viewers’ hearts, and the face of the characters who seem more alive than any other, this story simply, ends. Indeed, John Keating is a man of dreams and his classroom a legend to inspire another Dead Poets Society, if you would be so kind as to join.