I first saw this film when it came out in 1989, when I was about the same age of the main protagonist, Neil Perry. It was responsible for the reemergence of the quote, ‘Carpe Diem’, but for me it’s more about seizing the day—the film showed me that standing up for what is right is important for your soul and your integrity. These are traits that define you as you grow older and allow you to respect yourself, even when others cannot see things from your view.
John Keating, the liberal English teacher at a boarding school, portrayed by the late great Robin Williams epitomizes the journey of life, where one discovers creativity and defies the traditional school of thought. Like all good teachers and philosophers he teaches his students to think and not only the facts; something many teachers fail to do today as their own teachers did not take the time to teach them to think. Keating’s unique teaching methods encourages the students to think and see outside the box and also to break some school rules; it challenges loyalties among peers and betrayals from the weak. Trust is earned and gained and some pupils such as Dalton never betrays his friends or his teacher despite the consequences, unlike Meeks who doesn’t hesitate to protect himself.
The pivotal moment is when Perry, played brilliantly by Robert Sean Leonard, decides to follow his passion for acting, but knows he must hide it from his family who would disapprove. His plight, atypical of many ambitious families who decide the lives of their child, that do not listen to what the child wants, recognize their abilities or their individual personality. Despite trying to reason with his father, he feels he can only turn to Keating with whom he has a bond with and is someone who understands him, is willing to listen and also respects him. Teachers such as Keating are rare these days, but it is often the parent who barely knows their own child still to this day.
The recurring themes of loyalty, family values and society expectations are viewed through each character and how they react and develop. The result is that Perry’s parents failed to understand their son and his needs and the loss of his life inspires his former roommate, Todd Anderson, played by Ethan Hawke to stand up for himself, for his own self-esteem and to do the right thing. Failing to stand up to his parents and signing a a false statement, he eventually finds the courage to lead his classmates in standing on his desk and declaring, “O Captain! My Captain!” to Keating as he leaves. By standing on a desk, you can see life from a different perspective, which many of us fail to do and the mantra, “make your lives extraordinary” rings loud, because you are entitled to live your life how you wish, not one to make others happy. This is a poignant moment in the film where a teacher can touch a life and change it by sowing the seeds of strength and made a difference.
The film provokes many deep thoughts about how you choose to react; that some rules are there to be broken, because they need to change for society to develop. Are you brave enough to challenge the unspoken rules? Sometimes we have to; I challenged my college’s policy on writing references and told my Vice-Principal (in a very direct manner) that their policy was ineffective and unfair. I wasn’t suspended, but I did write a letter of apology and they did agree the policy did not serve the best interests of the students and it was changed, for me at least. Living your life with the courage of your convictions can lead to change and sometimes there will be consequences, but that is the challenge, called life.
Copyright © 2014-2015. S.T. Alvyn. All Rights Reserved.
This was originally posted in The Nomadic Philosopher.