“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, old
time is still a flying, and this same
flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.”
- Robert Herrick, 1591 – 1674
as quoted in the film Dead Poet’s Society
Along with many others, I mourn the recent death of Robin Williams. I have seen a lot of posts over the past day featuring clips of his iconic work as Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society– usually the ‘O Captain, My Captain’ scene from the end of the film.
It is a glorious piece of cinema.
When I think of Robin Williams, or of Dead Poets Society (which happens a lot this back-to-school time of year) I as often think back to the beginning of the film; the ‘carpe diem’ scene near the school’s trophy case, where Mr. Keating encourages his young charges to ‘seize the day’ as he invokes the faces of students long since passed:
“They’re not that different from you, are
they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones,
just like you. Invincible, just like you
feel. The world is their oyster. They
believe they’re destined for great things,
just like many of you. Their eyes are full
of hope, just like you. Did they wait until
it was too late to make from their lives
even one iota of what they were capable?
Because you see gentlemen, these boys are
now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen
real close, you can hear them whisper their
legacy to you. Go on, lean in.
The boys lean in and Keating hovers over Cameron’s shoulder.
(whispering in a gruff voice)
Cameron looks over his shoulder with an aggravated expression on his face.
Carpe. Carpe Diem. Seize the day boys,
make your lives extraordinary.
As someone who left the corporate world mid-life to become a teacher in the classrooms of New Orleans, it would not be a stretch to say I had some passing visions of being a Mr. Keating-type of teacher. That has yet to transpire – at least in any Hollywood sort of way.
But the allure of being a John Keating looms large for many of my colleagues and I, as I discovered this past week preparing for the new school year with colleagues at my new school. Williams’ death came up a number of times, more than just in passing.
Over the past few years I have frequently been asked to summarize my (fairly new but very eventful) teaching career, which I entered with a middle-aged, career-changer idealism that quickly took its lumps in the inner city classroom. In that particular regard, my teaching career mirrors that of Mr.Keating returning to his alma mater.
There is irony in recalling that scene as I approach a new school year at my decidedly inner-city locale and all the inherent issues that come with that setting. No, I do not teach at an exclusive private school. Unlike the young gentlemen of the film, who may be intellectual giants but lack much in the way of street smarts, I will be dealing with kids who are for more savvy to the up-and-down complexities of real-life. My students will not need to learn of the fragility of life as those in the movie did as most of them have experienced it in some way.
I will not have to show my new students old photographs.
Nor will I be standing on any desks (though I have a new audience for my substantial supply of personal go-to antics) and I will not suggest to my students that they call me anything but ‘Mr. Lucker’. That being said, I could do worse than strive to channel as much of my inner John Keating as possible. As Williams/Keating states in the film, “There’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.”
Or as I like to think of it, you roll the dice and sometimes you get to yell “Yahtzee”!
If my new crop of seniors comes out in May with just one key take-away from the year ahead, I can only hope it is this, as William-as-Keating notes in the film: No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.
We’ll see what the new school year, in a new environment (for me) has in store.
May Mr. Williams rest in peace. Mr. Keating will never have to.
‘Gather ye rosebuds’ indeed.