31 Lessons: 12. O Captain! My Captain!

I’m not really sure how it happened, but until yesterday’s plane ride home I had never seen Dead Poets Society. 

I know, I know, as an English teacher, I should be ashamed. And now that I have seen it, I am a little ashamed I didn’t see it sooner.

But you know what I’m not ashamed of? The straight up WEEPING I did during the final scene. To the little boy sitting beside me: thank you for being so engrossed in Cartoon Network that you did not stare and point at the lady, chin quivering and”ppff ppff pffffffff-ing” and absolutely losing it, beside you. (I also saw you steal your day’s Biscoff cookies while he was sleeping, just so you know. This all will be our little secret.)

But back to the point: this movie? I won’t reveal the final scene in case you have yet to be initiated into the D.P.S., but if you’ve seen it, you know the act of bravery that caused mascara waterfalls in seat 31A. “O Captain! My Captain!”    GAH!

Now, if you’ve worked with young people as a teacher or mentor or friend, you know the weight of that responsibility. You know the special kind of sorrow you feel when they make bad choices that you can’t fix for them. You know the unspeakable joy that rises in you when they discover their individual gifts and present them for good in the world. You know the bittersweet pride that c when you know your season with them is through, when it’s time for them to shape and be shaped by other voices, other lessons, other hands, other smiles and listening ears that are not your own. When it’s time for you to shape other voices, lessons, hands, smiles, and listening ears.

Though I love my new teaching position of Mom, there are days when I miss working in my school. I still think of it as “my school,” still think of them as my kids, my people. I still wonder whether I was able to make any difference in just a few short years. On my best days, I choose to trust in the promise that I’m where I should be–that the end of my season has made room for someone else’s season, someone else’s gifts. On hard days, though, that doesn’t stop me from longing for a magical season that once was.


But when I saw Mr. Keating’s smile, his heart about to explode as he looked upon his courageous students? I felt that to my core. It was a sweet reminder to me of the hard labor–the heart labor–of giving of ourselves, of living with courage, of teaching the timely and relevant lessons (not just the easy and expected ones).

The affirmation that what we do matters may not come at the moment we expect it, and honestly, it may not ever come in the way we expect. Artists never realize the full glory of their work because influence is infinite. And honestly? I don’t think artists really create so that people who see and feel and experience their work will thank them. I believe they create so that others will be inspired to create art of their own.

So Mr. Keating may not ever know all the ways those young men were impacted by what and how he taught, and neither will I. Maybe Mr. Keating and all teachers and parents and artists feel on dark days a pang of regret or emptiness at leaving a work unfinished, but I hope we are all brought into bright days and the beautiful truth that the works we’re making aren’t meant for the hands of one artist or the eyes of one generation alone. They’re so much bigger than that.

Or, as Whitman would say,

The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

To all the artists who have spoken and written, sung and soothed,  coached and prepared, danced and declared, and taught and lived their art into mine, I’m standing on my desk top today.

And the world sure looks beautiful from up here.

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