What a Sad Week in Pop Culture.
And when, by the time Lauren Bacall completed the "they always go in threes" rule at the age of 89, I actually felt a little grateful that I didn't have to think of how she was gone before her time.
Robin Williams was especially sad for me. He was probably one of the first actors I learned to recognize when I was a kid. I knew him as the voice of the genie in Aladdin and from Mrs. Doubtfire, which my sister and I watched so many times that we knew every line. And suicide is always such a hard topic for me, a bitter reminder of how far we still have to go in improving mental health care.
Bobby and I were both ridiculously busy this week. He had orientation most of the week for his new school; he was also offered (and accepted) a section of seventh-grade world history (unlike at my school, he will be compensated with a handsome stipend for taking on another prep) and so has been spending almost every spare minute working on getting lessons together for that class. I had a literature review due today for my cosmology class that has taken up most of my spare time this week. Last night, we decided to treat ourselves by watching a whole movie in one sitting--usually we have an hour of TV time a night, so movies are divided however many times needed to fit into those hour-long increments--and decided to rewatch Dead Poets' Society because of Robin Williams.
It's always interesting--and often perilous!--to rewatch movies that I remember enjoying when I was younger. My reaction to Dead Poets' Society now that I'm older and also a teacher was a bit different from when I watched it as a wannabe teacher some years ago. The movie is often held up as an exemplar of an excellent, inspirational teacher. Robin Williams' character (Mr. Keating) is made out to be the victim of a rigid and authoritarian system that Just Doesn't Get What He's Trying to Do. My view of him now, as a teacher, is a bit more complicated.
Watching him energize his students toward a subject not often preferred by adolescent boys--poetry!--often provokes the response, "Now that's a great teacher!" And, yes, he does inspire his students to invest themselves in a subject they ordinarily didn't care for and to invest more in themselves, but there is also a hearty helping of ego there that made me cringe. There is a certain type of teacher that invests a lot into becoming The Cool Teacher whose relationship with his/her students often verges more on friendship, not because the students benefit from such a relationship but because the teacher wants that image. It is very obvious that Mr. Keating wants to be that teacher and makes an effort to be perceived as such. He makes a deliberate effort to elevate himself in the minds of his students. When he suggests on the first day that they can address him as "O Captain, My Captain" if they're feeling daring, none of the students take the bait. He later will not respond to them until they call him that. *cringe* His "Oh, I can't possibly tell you about the Dead Poets' Society--the administration would have a fit!" makes it very obvious that he wants to tell them about the Dead Poets' Society so that they'll follow in his footsteps. His subtly passing along his book of poems used at the Dead Poets' Society seals the deal.
It's not about his students. It's about him.
That's not to say that he isn't pleased at having a positive impact on them, but he's also pleased at the image that creates of him as a teacher.
I also felt like a lot of his success with his students was contingent to a large extent on the obedience that had been inculcated into them by their education to that point. They were taught to do what they were told by authorities without questioning. He can get away with a lot of his more esoteric teaching stunts because his students have been raised to believe that they are powerless to refuse or offer criticism. Trust me, it does not work that way with most high school kids, especially gifted high school kids. If they think that what you're doing is stupid or lame, then they will tell you that it's stupid or lame. (If they're gifted, they'll tell you that it's stupid and lame and how they can do it better.) Even at their most rebellious--forming the Dead Poets' Society--they are merely following his lead, to some degree his explicit instructions, and are not yet truly thinking for themselves.
I also found myself wondering if such a movie would even be possible today. The movie was released in 1989, and I have trouble imagining a story about the travails of privileged white boys getting much traction 25 years later. The suicide of one of the main characters notwithstanding, it was hard to imagine that any of the characters faced much in the way of serious consequences for their actions; if they were privileged enough to get into [H]elton Academy, they presumably had ample connections to orchestrate the usual favors and cover-ups their social class enjoys. It naturally would have been Mr. Keating who took the fall.
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