“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. To put to rout all that was not life; and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived.”
I first watched “Dead Poets Society” my junior year of high school; its poster taunted me, sitting unwatched in my watchlist. When one of my classmates learned I had never seen it before, she was outraged. “Why not?! Your mom is an English teacher, for crying out loud!” I watched it shortly after and loved it, just as she knew I would. I then recommended it to another friend who hadn’t seen it, who came up to me days later and told me it made him cry.
At the prestigious preparatory school Welton Academy, a group of young students is inspired by their new English teacher, John Keating (Robin Williams, “The Angriest Man in Brooklyn”). It is under Keating’s direction that the boys discover the beauty of poetry, resurrecting the Dead Poets Society — a club which Keating founded when he himself was a student at Welton. Through their newfound love of words, the boys learn to think for themselves and pursue their own passions, much to the chagrin of their parents and school’s more conservative administration. Featuring Peter Weir’s beautiful shots of New England autumn and a score by Maurice Jarre that I can only describe as nostalgic, this movie has become a comfort film for me, even though it breaks my heart without fail. The film became a staple at movie nights; my close circle of friends never got tired of it despite the countless rewatches (though our varying interpretations of its message have caused debate). We fell in love with the wholesome characters, laughing at their teenage antics and cheering when they stood up for themselves. But what left a lasting impact on me was Williams’ performance, mixing humor with kindness and encouragement as a classroom role model.
It only makes sense then that we would see our senior year English teacher as our very own Mr. Keating.
If Mr. McNally was the unconventional Keating, then the beige walls of my Catholic high school were the uninspiring grounds of Welton. I don’t mean to bash anyone, because I enjoyed my time in that building; the ways that Mr. McNally structured his classes and treated us students simply felt different than all of my other teachers at the time. His lectures were much more similar to a college-style seminar — he preferred fostering discussion to reading off a PowerPoint word-for-word while we sat in silence, copying notes. We may not have been ripping pages out of our textbooks like the students do in the movie, but discussing whether Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte were gay for each other in Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” gave us a similar thrill. Like Keating, he encouraged us to do more than simply memorize information and regurgitate it into an essay. For our circles of hell projects while reading Dante’s “Inferno,” students came in with colorful posters, LEGO dioramas and even a Minecraft server. McNally was mischievous: He admitted to us that he would mess with Wikipedia pages so that he could tell when a student hadn’t done proper research. Instead of detentions he made us write lines as punishment, only to rip them up when we handed them in the next day. “You waste my time, I’ll waste yours,” he’d say. (I never had to write any, but walking into class and seeing a sentence on the board was amusing.)
In preparation for writing this piece, I reached out to my friends for their opinions on what made Mr. McNally synonymous with Keating, and we all came to a general consensus: He treated us like the adults we were becoming. He talked to us about more than the subject material, loving any excuse to get off-topic and tell us about his life: his childhood, his time as a student or discussions about theology. He was caring, always offering to buy us food or give us money if we ever needed it (though nobody ever took him up on it). But overall, we thought it was clear that he loved literature and made it seem like we could all be passionate about it too. After all, he’s the one who taught us the word for a coming-of-age story: a Bildungsroman.
We studied several of the readings featured in the movie my senior year: poems like “She Walks in Beauty Like the Night”, essays like Thoreau’s “Walden” and a few of Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays. I will admit that I knew these works first because of the film, which gave me a bit of a superiority complex when it came time to study them. But even though I was familiar with the words, it was McNally’s engaging passion that made them so much more enjoyable. I remember when presenting my analysis of “She Walks in Beauty,” he looked visibly touched upon hearing the lyrical poem, even though he must have read it hundreds of times before. There were also times when reading certain book passages aloud caused him to tear up. As Keating puts it, “we read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion.” I had a love for words and stories long before being in McNally’s class, but he’s the one who showed me that passion that Keating describes. Analyzing these readings with a different teacher wouldn’t have been the same.
One of the largest differences between the movie and my life is the way that art is generally accepted. The students in the movie grew up in a time where a career in the arts was frowned upon — they were expected to become doctors, lawyers or bankers, and breaking from that path brought about all kinds of chaos (I won’t spoil the ending for you). While today’s world is more open to an artist’s lifestyle, art itself is still seen as transgressive against authority, as illustrated by this year’s uptick in book bans, for example. Luckily, my friends and I were never restricted in this way. Our time after school was dedicated to the drama club, and each of us have now moved onto college and are studying the arts in one way or another: writing, film, literature, theatre and design.
“Dead Poets Society” is full of poetry, beauty and romance; things that Keating tells his students are “what we stay alive for.” It is a coming-of-age story in the sense that the students grow a lot over the course of two hours and eight minutes. They begin young and impressionable, and, with the help of a man who offers them a new perspective, their bond strengthens, and they become brave enough to seize the day and challenge what is expected of them, even in the face of fear.
In literature, a coming-of-age story is known as a Bildungsroman (guess who taught me that?). Markers of the genre include loss, personal growth and maturity. I found myself in a period of personal growth during and after my time in McNally’s classroom, as most high school seniors do. I had so much anxiety about the future — I was dreading going away to college even before I started sending in applications. But I once felt the same way about starting high school, which became a place I loved dearly. After a bumpy start, I understand now why everyone else in my class was looking forward to going to college: the freedom, the friends you make, the ways you learn. I’m very grateful to have had this space to be reinforced in my love for literature, and to know that there is truth in saying that “no matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”
Daily Arts Writer Hannah Carapellotti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.