“I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way!” proclaims Robin Williams’ character John Keating to a classroom of bored, blazered prep school boys in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society. As they line up to take in the view of dusty light fixtures and water-stained ceiling tiles from the top of Keating’s desk, he urges them to “break out” and find their own voices. At the end of the film when Keating has been fired (apparently the stodgy administrators only authorize floor-standing and frown upon pretty young boys filling their heads with ideas), the students revolt! Well, somewhat. Led by baby Ethan Hawke,
(Here he is, looking SO moved)
they stand upon their desks, tearfully quoting Walt Whitman as a weary but satisfied Keating smiles to himself. For the curious, you can watch the scene here: The world looks very different from up here. In another memorable scene from the movie, Keating orders students to rip out pages from their textbooks that explain the mechanics of poetry, an act symbolic of his belief in bucking the system and generally being a badass in the beard-stroking world of circle-jerking academia. Of course, like anyone with a damn soul, I was touched the first time I saw this movie, tears welling in my eyes as I clasped my hands and thought, “Oh Yes, that’s right! If I ever become a teacher, I will be exactly like that. No worksheets and rules for this revolutionary. I refuse to be a despot. I renounce corduroy!”
Here’s the problem. This is how such a scene might play out in a real classroom (keeping in mind that I teach at an urban community college):
Me: (After asking a student to read aloud an admittedly convoluted passage on understanding poetry) Excrement. Rip out those pages, I tell you!
Student: You trippin’?
Me: Rip it! Burn it! Rip it! (hopping up and down like some rabid gollum)
Student: I’m fin-a sell this back in a few weeks! I ain’t rippin’ out no pages. That’s bogue.
Me: (Frantically) It’s excrement! Don’t you see?!?
Student: (No response) (long, awkward silence/shifting feet)
Me: OK, well you don’t have to rip it, I guess, but it’s a pretty terrible passage, right guys? Right? Rules are stifling, huh? I hope this hands-on lesson has inspired you to love poetry.
– WEEKS LATER –
Student: Why you make us read that poem for class today? It ain’t make no sense. I hate poetry. It’s triflin’ doe.
Me: Didn’t it move you?!? Isn’t it powerful?!? Remember the book-ripping times, guys? Guys? (eyes gleaming, maniacally).
Student: Poetry is dumb. You dumb. Go jump in front of a bus.
I will agree with the fictional Keating that the passage he orders his students to rip out is, in fact, excrement. So many textbooks are basically expensive, hardback bricks of poo. The problem is that academia is already a pretty mystifying experience. Sometimes going to college is like being in the studio audience of a Japanese game show: At first, it’s downright bewildering, but nobody else seems to be disturbed by it. It’s as if they’ve been there forever and know something you don’t (like why that guy is lifting bricks with his nipple hooks and why he needs to have pantyhose over his face to do it, or why that woman is dressed like a transvestite chicken).
(Or what in the blue hell is happening here)
Soon, after exhausting your mental faculties over the why of it, you quietly accept it, even though you still don’t understand it. At all. You still long for a clear-cut explanation (a diagram? a flow chart?), but have lost all hope that you will ever have it. Now you just hope to make it out alive, even if it means lubing yourself up with petroleum jelly (as the host has requested) and squirming out of the nostril of that giant, plaster nose on the stage. You’ll go along with it as long as they let you leave afterward, dragging your pride behind you.
Ripping all the rules from the hands of desperate students who just want to understand is a bit like that. “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively,” says the Dalai Lama, and who am I to question the one teacher to rule them all? (P.S. Apparently I’m not the only one who can’t say ‘Dalai Lama’ without thinking ‘Dali Llama.’
Oh, and Dolly Lama.)
(Again – let’s just confirm how unoriginal we all are, or as Margaret Mead would put it, “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”)
Maybe I just sound like an old schoolmarm who forces students to copy lines from the chalk board and gleefully swats disobedient palms with a ruler. I’ll never be John Keating, that’s for sure. But even that band of ragamuffin psychopaths in Lord of the Flies adhered to some type of law (even if it involved pig heads on sticks and magic conch shells). I’ve come to terms with the fact that four minutes of fake John Keating will probably inspire more people than my entire teaching career ever will. Perhaps the world needs more John Keatings, but I can’t be one of them. I’m just going to try to help students find their way out of the maze without starving to death or resorting to eating their own shoes. Maybe schools need people like me, too (at least that’s what I tell myself so that I can drift peacefully into dreams about holding baby cheetahs at night).
Of course, Keating is not the only movie teacher to inject free-thought like a delicious jelly into the stale doughnut of formulaic curriculum. Don’t forget about Michelle Pfeiffer.
(Words, muthafuckas! Have you heard of them?)
Here she is “livin’ in a gangsta’s paradise” in the based-on-real-life, 1995 movie Dangerous Minds. A do-gooder, white, southern lady named Louanne attempts to inspire inner-city youth to turn away from their world of drugs and crime and turn, instead, to literature and writing. The kids are champion scowlers and spit out angry, venomous expressions like “Snitches get stitches!” and “You don’t understand nothin’! You don’t come from where we live!” She even gets called “Chismosa” by a feisty Latina. Yet, in one scene, in true 1990’s-vested glory,
(The beige vest – SO much sexier than the Lycra Catwoman suit)
the inevitable movie-breakthrough moment occurs while Pfeiffer quotes Bob Dylan (that’s right, Bob Dylan) – and the troubled students finally “get it,” (Dylan was right all along! The answer IS blowing in the wind!) as lead guitars crescendo in the background.
If you are a teacher, especially if you are an adjunct, always remember this: Teaching is not nearly as triumphant as Hollywood would lead us to believe. Students are more frequently inspired by you years later, with the perfect vision of hindsight, rather than in the span of a semester (condensed into a couple of hours). Just be careful not to concuss yourself as you repeatedly bang your head against the rock-hard wall of their obstinacy trying to make water flow out of it.
Remember that if you are ever tempted to force your students to deface their textbooks or stand on their desks in an attempt to shock them into inspiration, it will probably backfire (Think of all the potential for paper-cuts and broken ankles! If my grandmother taught me anything in life, it’s that almost every situation can lead to blindness, choking, or my face freezing “that way” if I’m not careful enough). Also, your students will probably think you are bat-shit crazy, and that never leads to positive course evaluations. If you’re an adjunct, you’ll probably end up getting fired, too. We’re a dime-a-dozen anyway, and there are twenty more Biff Lomans out there to take our places. In our case, though, there probably won’t be any shiny-faced, teen boys preparing to call us “Oh Captain, my Captain” as we walk out the door.
P.S. For all you fellow adjuncts out there, also remember that unless you pay a rock band to follow you around, there will be no inspirational guitar solos to mark your teaching achievements. (I hear these are standard issue with tenure, though, so maybe one day…) Most adjuncts barely make enough money to feed themselves (and what meager provisions they manage to buy they must defend from the rodent-sized cockroaches that creep out of the walls of their studio apartments), so this is probably not financially feasible for you. Hiring a mariachi band might be a slightly more affordable option for you, but BEWARE; mariachi bands are not nearly as effective for musically illustrating the zenith of your educational awesomeness.