So, I’ve been teaching this book to Grade 8s for a couple of years now. One would think that it won’t affect me as much as or more than the first time I read it years ago. But that’s the thing about compelling books. Each time you pick it up, it tugs at a different heart string, triggers some other buried memory or denied emotion and lets you swim farther out into the vast expanse of your understanding of the human condition, the complexities of power, the consequences of the decisions we make and the contradictions found in every us.
Without giving away too much, the book revolves around Jerry Renault, an annual, “voluntary” chocolate sale and the power structures in place at Trinity High (a corrupt teacher and acting headmaster, Bro. Leon, and Archie Costello and The Vigils, it’s leader and a secret group that lives to torment and intimidate the student body). Jerry, a freshman who recently lost his mother to cancer is beginning to discover and decide who he wants to be. He wants more from life and does not want to be like his father. He is brave and headstrong, and vulnerable and sensitive all at the same time. At first, he goes along with everything they tell him he should do: try out for football, be like Peter and not speak his mind, refuse to sell the chocolates as his assignment and then when the heat is on, eventually sell them thus, ending his Vigils’ assignment. In the middle of all of it, Jerry says No, not for the Vigils but for himself and disturbs the universe. “Cities fell. Earth opened. Planets tilted. Stars plummeted. And the awful silence.” In the end, Jerry gets beaten to a pulp, “murdered,” loaded onto an ambulance and driven away. And it was his conversation with his best friend, Goober at the tail end of that moment in the book that made start to cry in the middle of reading aloud together at the Harkness table.
I know. Am such a spaz. This makes it official (especially since I think I have given away too much up there. LOL.)
It was my last class for the day with my homeroom class (8PG). Joey Tandem decided to sit in to read and discuss with us at the Harkness table (erm, that could be your PLC visit for third term, JTandem, btw) and boy, was I glad he decided to do that because he was able to pick up the reading as my lower lip started to tremble and my tears started to fall. The kids were like, “wth?” and I was like, “omg.” I mean, we had passed the part in the book that made me cry last time so I thought I was in the clear…until we reached this part:
He had to tell Goober to play ball […,] to sell whatever they wanted you to sell, to do whatever they wanted you to do. […] They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless [it’s] their thing, too. It’s a laugh […] a fake. Don’t disturb the universe […] no matter what the posters say. (38.17) Take it easy Goober, it doesn’t even hurt anymore. See? I’m floating above the pain. Just remember what I told you. It’s important. Otherwise they murder you. (38.19)
In my head, I replaced Jerry and put any one of my Grade 8 students saying the exact same thing to someone and that did it. Just the thought of any of them giving up, copping out, throwing in the towel, thinking it’s not worth it – to disturb the universe – killed me. And I know I did it to myself. Imagined the scene and fed it. I know these kids are not inclined to do that. Not at all. Not right now. But just the thought, man, it left me breathless and sad and well, weepy. The kids were totally understanding of course, and curious (why the waterworks, Ms. P?) and I think, weirdly touched by the gesture. Anyway, thank goodness for best friend colleagues and mature students who get it. Who get literature. Who get me. I think any other school, time, place, it would have been a completely different story.
I am truly grateful for the Grade 8s this year. I am sure watching them graduate from middle school in less than two months will be bittersweet and yes, will be another cry fest for most of us. I do pray everyday that they continue to be “disturbers of the universe” and that no matter what happens, they’ll think it’s worth it. Whatever it is.
grateful slice: great books, awesome kids and being real
I watched Neil Perry take his life twice yesterday. TWICE! And I wept as my heart broke in a million little pieces, two times over. I tried to sniffle quietly so my students wouldn’t notice me crying but super fail in that department. Before I knew it, I was a sniveling idiot. I mean come on, right? I’ve seen this movie a thousand times and damn, it gets me every single time. In the end though, after an inspiring week of watching “Dead Poets Society” in class, the boys had an intense Carpe Diem look on their faces and the girls had puffy eyes and red noses from grief and shock. Watch, it’ll get them every time too.
Anyway, today I pray that all students at one point in time meet a Mr. Keating, and have all Mr. Keatings everywhere know that they deserve moments like this one (minus the part where he loses a student and his job, of course).
Langston Hughes’ words kept running through my head as we watched the film.
Being part of the business of helping young people make their dreams come true or at least help make sure they don’t defer to anything but the voice they need to believe in, I thank my own o captain, my captain for bringing me here — every single day, even if there are moments, much like this one, when my heart breaks into tiny little pieces.
grateful slice: being a teacher
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.
What will your verse be?”
(John Keating from the “Dead Poets Society”)
I was in high school when I first saw this movie. I’ll never forget it. It made me fall in love with language, verse, voice, writing and teaching against the stream. As a young woman, I was inspired by the spirit of Carpe Diem, sucking the marrow of life and not choking on the bone, living deliberately and not being afraid to speak or write or think for myself. I loved watching the boys change from amoeba to men. I ripped pages too, closed my eyes, read poetry aloud and dared to do what I wanted to do when they did.
As a teacher in my thirties, it is Mr. Keating who moves me. His love for those boys, his passion for verse, his commitment to language and refusing to be ordinary — especially in his teaching — these are the things that resonate with me today. It might be a cliche’ to some, showing “Dead Poets Society” to class for my poetry unit, but I really don’t care. Whoever teacher or friend or sibling introduced this movie to me, I thank you today. Because now, like oral tradition, it’s my turn to share my experience with Neil and Todd and Nuwanda and Knox Overstreet and Mr. Keating and Walt Whitman and Thoreau and Robert Frost and Carpe Diem with my 21st century kids. 🙂 Poetry may look and sound different today and that’s fine but the power of the verse and the stuff of epiphanies through the verse (strict or free) remain the same. Thank you, Tom Schulman for writing the screenplay (which was nominated for an Academy Award and which won for Best Writing, (screenplay written directly for the screen) in 1989).
This is my favorite scene. Mr. Keating and terrified Todd Anderson, having a go at reciting Todd’s own piece (which he composed on the spot, inspired by a picture of Walt Whitman) in front of the class. It took everything from me to not tear up in class as we watched this morning.
I close my eyes and this image floats beside me
The sweaty-toothed madman with a stare that pounds my brains
His hands reach out and choke me
And all the time he’s mumbling
Truth, like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold.
You push it, stretch it, it will never be enough
Kick it beat it, it will never cover any of us.
From the moment we enter crying, to the moment we leave dying,
it will just cover your face
as you wail and cry and scream.
grateful slice: inspiration and poetry
p.s. What inspired you today? I’d love to hear about it.
District 9 is the shit. Go and see it. It is truly a fallen world.
grateful slice: good movies that wow you and watching them with good friends.
Took a real day off a few weeks ago and decided to spend it watching movies. From “Time Traveler’s Wife” to “Hangover” and Pixar’s “UP,” it was truly a day well spent. Nothing like eating a spicy Jamaican Patty and drinking a Big Chill fruit shake while watching a flick in the theater. I would not have spent that free Friday any other way. I would have to say though, that “UP” really left an impression on me.
I loved the first 15 minutes of silent storytelling, can relate to wanting to keep a talking dog and found the bizarre looking, chocolate loving, colorful bird ironic. I especially liked the idea of letting go of something you have been dragging along for a long time and unloading things you thought were important to finally create new adventures. When Mr. Whatshisname started to unload the stuff from the house he was dragging around, to lighten the load, so he could fly upward to save Russell — I totally dug that. Then when he finally watched his house float away into oblivion, I knew the movie was whapacking me in the face with some kind of moment of clarity. There’s no space for the new, if I keep on lugging the old shit around. That’s just the freaking truth.
The next time I feel like wearing my own cone of shame, I can just think of Russell and Paradise Falls, and one old man’s fight to find new meaning in his life.
And he was only really able to do that when he opened his eyes, looked at what was in front of him and finally let go of his house.
grateful slice: the clarity of metaphors