Into my third year as a high school teacher, I was having a heart-to-heart with my college bound senior class on the concept of respect. They were only about ten years younger than myself but I was clearly the adult in the situation. In the course of our conversation, one of the students said, “Why should I respect Emma?”
Emma worked at our school as a teacher’s aide and lunch room monitor. She was kind to me and we ate lunch every day together. Emma went through the school of hard knocks and graduated. I have heard she said some pretty crude things when her back was pushed up against a wall, but I honestly never heard her say anything inappropriate.
I was dismayed by my students response: how arrogant, how condescending, how had we morphed into this world? I felt I wanted to do something and so I did. I assigned them a respect paper. I asked them to write about the person they respected most and break it down into why, with three or four concrete examples. I hoped that through an anlysis of what constituted respect, they would grow to see the problem in their thinking about my friend Emma. Then they challenged me to do the same, I did. What follows is the result, My Respect Paper.
I give everyone I come into contact with respect for two reasons. The first reason is because we are all human beings, flawed and subject to the same vulnerabilities, the biggest being death which humbles and unites us all. The second reason I give all human beings respect is because if I fail to do this, I may miss something important that they have to show me. For example, if I did not respect my students despite their young age and inexperience, I would miss all the fresh ideas and hope they have to offer me. The respect I give all human beings may heighten and intensify with time as I become more involved with them, but for this to occur I have to start with respect for mankind in general.
I have chosen to write my paper on Mr. Keating (played by Robin Williams), a prep school teacher in the film Dead Poets Society and a personification of what I respect in a human being and a teacher.
Mr. Keating has many admirable qualities and they are exhibited in his teaching style. As a teacher, his goals were not content oriented but rather, student oriented. Mr. Keating’s most impressive strength was his ability to make his students look beyond poetry and into their souls. This was evident on the first day of class when he led his students to the pictures of previous Welton graduates (Welton was the name of the school where he was teaching). He instructed his students to look into the eyes of the alums and see the vigor, energy, and hope within those eyes.
“Lean in,” said Mr. Keating, and “peruse some of the faces from the past…invincible, just like you feel, the world is their oyster…their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable of? Because you see Gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. Lean in and hear them whisper their legacy to you: “Carpei, Carpei Diem.” “Seize the Day.” “Make your lives extraordinary.'”
The best thing about this strategy was that it worked and his students began to seize the day as they ventured into their school year.
Secondly, I respected Mr. Keating’s dedication to nonconformity in his teaching. Mr. Keating wanted students to think for themselves and this was clearly evidenced when he instructed them to tear out the first chapter on poetry analysis in their textbook. “Excrement!” he stated as he told them to “Rip.” He then went on to explain that poetry can not be measured by others who write about it, and that in his class, these young men would learn to think for themselves. Although this method would not be possible for most teachers, a belief in independent thinking was illustrated well in this exercise.
Finally, Mr. Keating’s commitment to the individual student and helping him unearth what lies deep within his soul was tempered by his ability to guide, but not force. He gave his students’ ideas in such a way that they wanted to explore life and poetry for themselves. This was evidenced when he tempted them with knowledge about the Dead Poets Society, a secret organization where he and his peers found safety to “suck the marrow out of life” as they read and thought about poetry. Mr. Keating was successful in stimulating his students to go beyond themselves as they too went to the caves around Welton and formed a Dead Poets Society.
In conclusion, Mr. Keating’s great ability as a teacher is admirable. He took all of his life experiences and provided his students with the ability to experience life for themselves. If you have not seen the movie, make some popcorn some night this summer and plug-in the VCR , it is well worth it.
I will truly miss you all next year, thanks for a great year, you have been an extraordinary class. “Carpei Diem.”