“That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

by Terry Heick

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Robin William’s role in Dead Poet’s Society is, to me, the iconic teacher.

That’s who I’ve always wanted to be as a teacher–student-centered. Counter-culture. Affectionate. Disruptive. Serving. Wisdom-seeking. Unconventional. Quirky.

It probably helped that I’m an English teacher, love poetry, am white, live on the East Coast(ish), and first saw Dead Poet’s Society after a year of teaching SpringBoard (scripted curriculum for English-Language Arts). Lots of overlaps.

There are slivers of identity that attract or repel a person. Why Mr. Keating (William’s character in the movie), and not Jamie Escalante or Socrates or some teacher I had as a student? Why a fictional character in a fairly predictable movie built on pathos and tropes? Because I could identify with Keating. He cared more about his students than he did himself in an almost self-destructive way. He thought student access to literature was a human necessity as fundamental as breathing, and he invited them to it eloquently. He distributed nothing.

He whispered to students in a sing-song, melancholy, and haunting tone on behalf of those that had come before. It was never about him, but about the ultimate invitation–inviting a potential learner to something worth understanding.

To me, that’s teaching.

As far as his character in DPS, it wasn’t so much the quotes and themes (carpe diem) as it was his devotion to something greater than himself–and his ability to see his limited role in that fragile process. Students deserved to understand literature–that seemed to be his position. So I took those ideas, and formed what I thought about teaching.

What can I do to help students climb over and around me?

To not need me?

To trust themselves enough reach out and take something?

I’m not sure if I’ve always thought this and Keating’s character just captured it well, or if the movie helped me understand–or both. Self-directed learning, the role of play in learning, self-knowledge, personal and social change, thinking carefully and critically, how learning can serve our own humanity, what a school or teacher should “be,” and dozens of other macro questions guide a lot of my work at TeachThought, and so it took my breath away to read of William’s death (apparently by suicide) this afternoon.

And that’s where this post ends. Don’t have any kind of summarizing clarity to offers. That’s it. There was once a teacher, fictional or not, and he helped others understand. This is an incredible triumph. Though his classroom was stuffy and his school decidedly non-progressive and his content area known for its fascination with the dead people of yesterday rather than the thinking for tomorrow, Keating was pure 21st century teacher–selfless, disruptive, and in love with understanding.

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. 

What will your verse be?