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Stand on the Table!

08/20/2014 06:01 pm ET | Updated Oct 20, 2014

The news of Robin Williams' death sent me back to Dead Poets Society, a film I'd never forgotten but hadn't watched since it gripped me, myself a young teacher in a girls' school, in the 1980s. I, too, taught English like the movie's protagonist John Keating. Last week, one of my sophomores from that era, now full grown, posted on Facebook that I had encouraged my girls to contribute their own verses, to make carpe diem their battle cry in the same way Keating does in the film. I felt grateful and weepy, sad, of course, for William's death and melancholy, too. A quarter of a century later, I recall that young, idealistic version of myself. I was so certain, so sure I knew what girls needed. Time passes. We change. What we remember is shaped by who we were, of course.

Now, beginning my eleventh year as Headmistress of a girls' school, I watched the film through a new lens. I thought I remembered everything about the plot, but I had remembered only moments, impressions.

The contours of the story were familiar -- a teacher who inspired his boys. I remembered a suicide though I had forgotten a lot. I admired the beautiful St. Andrew's campus, the pageantry of Convocation. I frowned at the buttoned-up Headmaster -- pompous, arrogant, old, cruel -- also an English teacher, but the kind I loathe, a by-the-book curmudgeon. I loved when Keating told the boys to rip the introduction out of their anthologies, when his own joy in words and language stirred them to recite, to chant poetry in the dark even if it required sneaking out. Their rebellion felt safe, purposeful. There were more boys in the class than I recalled -- all preppy, white, privileged sons of parents whose high expectations were unrelenting.

Decades later, I understand that John Keating is the kind of teacher we all wish to hire yet struggle to manage. He blurs boundaries, putting what he felt boys needed above institutional loyalty. Because he was so defiantly unconventional, it surprised me that he was an alumnus of a school that actively curbed creative thinking. I loved Keating's willingness to encourage the boys to think for themselves, to stand on the desk, to seize the day. But you can tell immediately that he is doomed. His alma mater prided itself on its Ivy League acceptance rate, expecting boys to do what they were told. "Just prepare them for college," the Headmaster remonstrates. "Don't teach them to think."

I shuddered. What else must we do but teach children to think, to care, to empathize? School is about character, but not about cookie-cutter, one dimensional outcomes. So much of what education requires -- leading out of darkness -- goes against the culture of this fictitious school, elements of which I recognize, reject and rage against. I want to be a Headmistress who honors creativity, who encourages deep listening, choice, risk, originality, who asks girls to use their voices and to reach for their visions.

Adolescence is perilous, a push-me-pull-you time of individuation and attachment, of belonging to a new tribe of friends, of exploration and pushing boundaries. I was struck by how fear and the weight of parental expectations held the boys hostage. As a mother of three children, I felt furious at the film's passive mothers, smoking silently, dominated by controlling husbands. Why didn't they stand up and advocate for their sons? Watching the movie, curled up on my nineteen-year old daughter, I lost myself in a reverie -- power and privilege, unrebuked, wanton cruelty. And the hero, a teacher, pushing against convention and culture, doomed in film, the actor who played him, doomed decades later as well. The experience of the film is changed for me this time because I know its ending and Williams' ending, too.

Neil, Robert Sean Leonard's character in the movie, rebels against his father, falling in love with the idea of acting. Against his roommate's practical counsel, he forges a letter from his father to get permission to appear in A Midsummer Night's Dream. His father has already forbidden him to work on the yearbook, so we, the audience, know this can't end well. But, still we root for Neil, for his foolhardy courage in choosing his own dream rather than his father's dream for him. We long for a happy ending even as Neil lies to Mr. Keating when his teacher urges him to reason with his father.

Neil's futile rebellion makes sense to me. In the school I lead, I think it is the job of adolescent women to push the envelope, to make mistakes and learn from them (or so we hope). Though Neil knows his father will never view his disobedience as worthy, he must try. Once the father learns of his son's deception, he is swift and stern. Neil, crushed under the weight of his father's furious disappointment and the rigid plan outlined for his future, takes his own life. Alone and hopeless, he cannot find a way out. Often, kids in these types of situations find ways to endure. They cultivate resilience, grow up and get out, but in this story, Neil dies.

Suicide rocks a community -- whether it is a fictional prep school or the social media landscape as in the case of Williams' own death. When the Headmaster announces that he will begin an inquiry into the circumstances of Neil's death but fails to acknowledge loss or sorrow, I cringed. We are, in 2014, better, I think on the subject of the social-emotional well-being of teenagers than we were in fictional boys' schools in 1959. "This is the kind of thing that ruins schools," says the bright red-head, satisfyingly decked later by Ethan Hawke, who resents not only the boy's traitorous smugness but also the truth he speaks. "Yes," I murmur. This school's reputation can withstand no cracks. Keating has to be the scapegoat. The boys are coerced into confessions. Keating is removed. He and Neil are blips in the school's history. The film ends. I found myself hoping Keating went on to have a long career -- elsewhere. Then I remembered it was a movie, not real life.

John Keating was a muse for me long ago, showing me that relationships are at the heart of teaching, that learning happens more easily when inspiration, joy and playfulness are woven through lessons, that often which is essential cannot be assessed for a grade. As this new school year begins, I am grateful for what Robin Williams gave, glad that his wit and generosity as John Keating inspire me this week to ask my 9th grade girls to stand on their desks to get another perspective on their world.