Dead Poets Society Broke Me

Carpe diem. Seize the day. Like so many others, I adopted the motto after seeing Dead Poets Society for the first time so very many years ago. It came out just a few months before my 15th birthday, and it had a major impact on me just as much as it did with the impressionable young men in the film. It still has an effect on me 29 years later, but for far different reasons. The following is more about me than it is about the film.

From about the 7th grade through about a year and a half at a small community college, all I had wanted was to be a doctor. It was a couple different kinds of doctor at first, but I was always about medicine. My plan was all laid out: a prestigious private university in Minnesota, then on to the University of Michigan to further my medical interests. My grades were good enough to make this a realistic goal, but my parents’ money wasn’t. So, after a year in community college, my disappointment at being there affected my grades and attitude, and ultimately prevented me from following the path I set for myself.

After that first year, I became less enamored with doctoring (read: realized I blew my chance), and more interested in teaching and the power of what teaching could do. I changed my major from biology to English and received an A.A. in English with the intent of becoming an English teacher in the mold of Mr. Keating in Dead Poets. This is where, through to today, things went sideways for me.

I’ll never forget telling my mother that I intended to become a teacher, thinking she would be proud. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Her crushing words to me: “You wouldn’t make a very good teacher. You should be a police officer like your father and stay home.” Staying home…living the rest of my life in a town of just over 3,000 people and needing to drive an hour for any meaningful entertainment would be worse than death.

Two months after graduating from that community college, I left everyone in Minnesota behind and moved to West Michigan in the hopes of finding something better and different. However, through an ever-increasing series of poor decisions, none of my plans ever came to fruition. Though my actions were my own, my mother’s words were there every step of the way.

In Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating is the kind of teacher I was fortunate enough to have (thank you Mr. Blank!), he was the teacher I had hoped to become, and he was the encouragement I needed, even before my mother’s words.

The film centers around a group of young men who are being groomed for prestigious positions later in life. Family legacy takes precedence over the desires of the individual. Much like my mother wanting me to be a cop like my dad.

Robert Sean Leonard plays Neil Perry, a young man who decides that the theater is where his true passion lies. However, his father has different plans for him. Neil defies his father’s wishes, performs in the play, and ultimately kills himself later that night out of desperation for not being allowed to follow his dreams.

Ethan Hawke is Todd Anderson, a shy and introverted soul who feels that what is inside of him isn’t worth a damn.

And then there’s Charlie Dalton (or, “Nuwanda”), played by Gale Hansen. We’ll get to him in a little bit.

The meaning of Dead Poets Society has changed for me over the years. At first, it was being inspired to read more and to not be afraid to enjoy poetry and literature, something my father couldn’t quite understand (not to say he was a boor); I was supposed to be a hunter and fisherman like him (I am his only son, after all). Secondly, Mr. Keating was an inspiration; he was someone I could potentially be in life. Lastly, it has become about not seizing the day, and giving in to all the voices that say “no”, “stop”, and/or “you just aren’t good enough”.

I am Neil Perry: there are things I want(ed) to do and be, but lack of encouragement at an impressionable age proved to be overwhelming. An overbearing, and audible, voice became a voice in my head every time I wanted something more, better, or different.

I am Todd Anderson: writing is something I’ve tried doing, first at a sports blog, then a film blog, and now this second film blog. All along the way, I’ve felt that nothing inside of me is truly worth sharing; it’s “worthless and embarrassing”.

I am Charlie Dalton: in the courtyard scene of Dead Poets, Mr. Keating is having his students march in military fashion before pointing out that it’s okay to do things your own way. He encourages the class to walk around in a way that expresses who they are, whether goofy, straight, or whichever way inspires them in the moment. It is Charlie, standing off to the side doing nothing, who I am during this scene. He’s exercising his right to not walk; he’s doing things his own way, and he bucks the entire damn system. It is only after more recent viewings of the movie that I realize just how like Charlie I was and am. Although I respected authority in school, I wasn’t afraid to question it or fight it when I found it to be ridiculous or oppressive (stories for another time). I wanted to be…me. Charlie is the only truly independent thinker in the group. In another display of individuality, note the scene when everyone is singing a hymn after Neil’s death. The only one not singing praises to God is Charlie. Instead of bowing his head in sorrow, he’s looking straight ahead in defiance of everything around him.

In the end, though, I have failed the legacy of Dead Poets Society in a couple of ways:

  • I have not had the breakthrough that Todd did. Yes, I’ve done some writing, and I realize that posting this is contradictory, but the voice in my head still takes precedence over the voice that wants to speak out, making writing a truly agonizing process.
  • I have not ‘seized the day’; I gave up on my dreams and goals.

Dead Poets has become an incredibly difficult film for me to watch, now. It calls back to the things I wanted, and failed, to be. Now I am just a middle-aged man with crippling self-doubt, insecurity, and a bit of an inferiority complex when it comes to education and professional accomplishments.

Perhaps I have an opportunity to make a difference in a way I hadn’t thought of before. Although I’m not where I thought I’d be, I have three wonderful children I cherish with all my heart. It’s too late for me to pursue any dreams for myself, but it’s not too late for them. I encourage them to be the best possible people they can be and to strive for something they truly want, and I do it with no small amount of fear of them giving up. What I know for sure is that they will never hear me speak my mother’s words to them.

Carpe diem, girls.

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