by James Penha

Dead Poets Society
appalls me. I would
be one of Keating’s
Welton colleagues, not
so tight-assed as most
but one who can take
the man for a beer
on a late Friday afternoon
early in his tenure
and warn him that passion
is the greatest of gifts
for a teacher, but
like literary theory
or atomic energy,
not a force to disseminate
with abandon. I recount
my first year in the classroom,
when a student took my fervor
for “She’s Leaving Home”
as a pass to run away
from his . . . when on a
field trip, another offered
me a joint with an inviting
Teach? Our power
to shock and awe,
I tell John, is profound;
if we invade their lives
outside the halls, we must
do so with delicacy
for although teaching is not open-heart
surgery, John, it is.

And after the boy kills himself,
I argue against firing Keating,
but hear from John no qualms
no doubts no responsibility for a fire
he kindled. “So this must be the day,”
I say, “from which you turn away.”

PHOTO: (Left) Portrait of the poet as a young high school teacher in Astoria, New York. Photo by John Azrak; fiery colorization and photoshopping by Jared Moore. (Right) Robin Williams as John Keating in Dead Poets Society (1989).

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Even decades after Dead Poets Society was released, many of my own students and a surprising number of colleagues saw Robin Williams’ John Keating as the ideal secondary school teacher, iconically enlivening the words of verse and demanding that his charges seize the day and “Break out! Break out! Now is the time!” I have always hated the movie because although there is much to appreciate in Keating’s pedagogical style, the substance of his mission, the manner in which he imposes himself into the complex lives of young people, is horribly careless. Oh, he does say with a line that is rather unremembered by viewers, “There’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.” But when the results of his poetic turns turn tragic, Keating never asks himself if he had been wise or dreadfully, dreadfully foolish.