Y’all, I’m still here. Sorry for the radio silence lately. (Jeff has been giving me a really hard time about the fact that my last post was more than ten days ago AND about The Bachelorette – haha.) I know it’s cliche to say, but I’ve just been busy soaking up every last minute of summer before I start back in the classroom on Monday. It will likely be quiet here for a little longer as I squeeze in one last trip of the summer Wednesday – Friday, try to do all 12998 things left on my “Summer To Do” list this weekend, and get reacquainted with work next week. BUT, rest assured, we’ll be back to regularly scheduled programming soon. 🙂 Thanks for sticking around.
Along with most of America, I woke up this morning feeling heavy and burdened by the loss of one of Hollywood’s greatest – Robin Williams – to apparent suicide yesterday afternoon.
Even to myself, it seems silly to “mourn” the loss of someone I never really knew, but something feels different about this loss… In addition to being the star of many of the trademark movies of my childhood (Aladdin, Patch Adams, Jumanji, Flubber, & Mrs. Doubtfire), Williams holds a very special place in my heart as John Keating from Dead Poets Society.
Probably more than any other movie ever, Dead Poets Society has influenced my life – as a reader, a writer, a thinker, and a teacher. First as a high school student myself and then – many years later – as a teacher, I’ve always been struck by Mr. Keating’s teaching philosophy, techniques, style, and – most importantly – his love for and commitment to his students… Sure, it was “just a movie,” but – in so many ways – it was a pretty realistic image of some of the challenges teachers face in the “system” and the way that passion can overcome those obstacles. In an age where everyone seems to want to tell us that the odds are stacked against us – this movie made me believe I could make a difference. It has had a profound difference on my career choice and the type of teacher I am today.
In large part because of my own love for the movie, but also because it pairs excellently with my tenth grade summer reading assignment – A Separate Peace by John Knowles – and opens the floor for a variety of worthwhile discussion topics, I’ve been starting my school year with this movie for almost eight years now. My students are always drawn in to the movie’s storyline, make excellent connections with literature, and rise to the challenge of maturely and wisely talking about some tough issues that the movie presents – like the purpose of reading and writing, dreams vs. reality, carpe diem, and… suicide.
As I gear up for the start of another school year in a few weeks (days), I intend to include Dead Poets Society in my plans as I always do. However, in light of recent events, I suspect that the stakes will be even higher in our discussions this fall…
Here are a few of the questions I plan to extend to my students after watching the movie:
1.) How does this movie relate to today’s popular “YOLO” philosophy? Relate that to Keating’s statement “Sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.” What does it mean? How does it affect you?
2.) Why is Whitman’s poem “Oh Captain, My Captain” (and the subsequent nickname) particularly fitting for Mr. Keating in this movie? What is the message of the poem? How it is fitting for Robin Williams himself?
3.) How do you feel about the pressures the boys are under in the movie? Where do the pressures come from mostly? (Their families? Their teachers? Society?) Can you relate to them? How so?
4.) What is the message of this movie regarding conformity? Can you think of some specific instances where this message is stated or implied? Do you agree or disagree with this message?
5.) Who do you, ultimately, blame for what happens to Neil at the end of the movie? How is his suicide portrayed in the movie? Could it have been prevented? How?
I think, this year, I will also follow up our discussion of the movie with a reading of Anna Quindlen’s essay “The C-Word in the Hallways” and more talk about depression and mental illness. I will also make sure to tell my students how much I care about them and probably give a little speech – although it is guaranteed to make them squirm in their seats – about how valuable their lives are. It’s uncomfortable to talk like that to teenagers – especially this early in the year – but, the truth is, they don’t hear it nearly enough. I have the incredible privilege of being on the front line with them, and I don’t want to waste even one moment of it…
If I can hope for anything good to come out of Robin William’s death, it is – as we’ve seen happening already – for the troops to rally in the fight against depression and suicide. For the world to stop treating it like a “weakness” and recognize it as a disease that can strike even the top student, star athlete, or America’s leading “funny man.” I know it was a wake up call for me.
Do you teach Dead Poets Society – or anything with a similar theme – in your classes? If so, how do you address suicide with your students? How can we make a difference in the way it is perceived and handled among our country’s teenagers today? I would LOVE your input into this important discussion…