Thursday, March 19, 2020

Carpe diem quam solus

Back in the good old days when students and their teacher could assemble together in the same room, I had been showing my English class a series of movies. I pitched it as “an examination of contemporary depictions of poets and poetry” and suggested various critical lenses through which the films could be viewed. I was also getting tired of beating my brains for creative ways to teach poems. Bored with Shakespearean sonnets, kids? Fine; here’s James Franco as Allen Ginsberg. He swears a lot and takes peyote. In the film, I mean. Enjoy.

We had started with Sylvia, having read a few of Sylvia Plath’s poems and researched her life, and I was surprised and pleased at the criticism they heaped on the film—its inadequate portrait of mental illness, its excessive focus on Plath’s relationship with Hughes and sore negligence of screen time devoted to her writing itself. We snickered derisively together at the way the DVD case’s images featured a rapturously smiling Gwyneth Paltrow being nuzzled by debonair Daniel Craig, as though this were a cheerful rom-com. Young poets in love! Many thumbs down.

Eventually we got around to Dead Poets Society, a movie I’d first seen when it first came out, when I was only a few years older than they are—and then went to see several more times after that. I’d loved it; it was my favorite movie for some time. Then life happened, I got older, I did a lot of things and saw a lot of the world, and eventually I became a teacher. And at some point in all that, I grew to feel something close to irritation when it came to this beautifully filmed, beautifully acted, once beloved story.

The movie, as you likely already know, is about a charismatic, and controversial, English teacher at an exclusive private boys’ school in 1959. That’s pretty much all you need figure out the basic plot. He goes in, throws textbooks and tradition out the window, and encourages the boys to reject conformity in the pursuit of “extraordinary lives.” This ruffles the feathers of the establishment, who somehow failed to ask him for a statement of his teaching philosophy before they hired him.

I had anticipated a solid critical discussion of the pedagogy of Mr. Keating. Yes, he gets them excited; on the other hand, he was teaching a poetry class—can you name a single poem he actually taught? He makes fun of Shakespeare; he misinterprets Frost; he quotes a few short lines of some very lengthy Whitman poems. Yes, the boys sneak off to a cave, encouraged by Keating, where they occasionally read poetry aloud, but mostly they just smoke and talk about girls. What’s more, the film is demographically accurate for the time and place: all of Keating’s students are rich and white and male (and likely straight, as there are no real intimations otherwise). It’s all well and good to inspire people with abundant resources to fight conformity, but if they lose the fight, the worst that happens is they become doctors and lawyers and bankers rather than actors and poets. Compare that to the person who is forced to erase their very identity in order to conform, and the battle Keating inspires seems misplaced.

Of course, I also anticipated that they’d enjoy the film, as I had, yet I was a little surprised at how much and uniformly this was so. No one was critical of it. Everyone loved it. No one questioned Keating’s pedagogy; rather, they praised the fact that he encouraged poetry to become part of his students’ lives rather than just a subject in a book. They loved the film as I had. I felt very old.

Still I refused to conclude that I had become the stodgy, disciplinarian headmaster hell-bent on taking all the joy out of life. Education is complex. No teacher I have ever known limits their pedagogy solely to either rote learning or emotional response. My students understandably were at a time in their lives when they felt like the world was in fact hell-bent on joy-removal, but reality is more complicated than that. Learning—life itself—requires balance and perspective and patience.

That, at least, was my predominant view when we first started watching and discussing the film. We finished it on Friday, March 13. That was the last I saw of my students and likely the last I’ll ever see of them together in the same room.

Now I wonder what Mr. Keating would do, finding himself at home facing his computer screen, having to teach students who can’t ever sneak out to caves to read poetry together because that would no longer be an act of nonconformity so much as one of foolhardiness. How do you encourage them to make their lives extraordinary when they can’t even enjoy the ordinary anymore? So many sources of joy have been taken away from them, some possibly irrevocably. Now how do you teach poetry? How do you make it matter?

Now more than ever, I want poetry to matter, not in the sense that it will change my students’ lives and fill them with a sense of passion and purpose, but in the way that something small can still be meaningful because it connects us. I want my students’ lives to be extraordinary, yes, but first I want them to be ordinary again. How keenly right now do we feel the loss of ordinary things: raucous stairwells, whispered conversations in corners of the library, sitting in an overheated classroom puzzling over a poem from hundreds of years ago wondering why we have to study something so old and boring and irrelevant to our lives—remember? Remember when we used to do that? Maybe we can do that again.