No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world….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. 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.
~ John Keating (Robin Williams) in Dead Poets’ Society (1989)
PERHAPS NO WORDS uttered in film history, or even in real-life history for that matter, have moved me as intensely and vibrantly as the words that an exceptional actor as Robin Williams utters. I have praised Williams’ portrayals of his characters for many years and even to this day he is still one of my many idols in Hollywood history and I think I can say this statement as confidently as I can, knowing that Robin himself is proud of the efforts he strives to perform through his each and every one of his characters.
But don’t let my exuberant praise of Mr. Williams deceive you. In some cases I feel that seeing a person take the stage really does mean to truly believe that that person whom you know in real life becomes a specific character the next split-minute—right down to the humorous jokes, enticing wit, and warm personality; and if you have any wonderful memories of being in a performing arts class at any institution you probably feel what I’m feeling right now at this precise moment.
But there should come a time in everyone’s lives I believe when you are so moved by a certain character you strive to let yourself be that character; those moments when you almost senselessly embody the very body and spirit of a character, and for that I would like to mention a certain Mr. Keating.
Now I’ll be completely honest here. I originally was going to write this column as a Father Day’s tribute for those patriarchal role models in my life, but sensing how that time has passed, I will instead discuss how these role models, both in film and in the real world, have in a sense “rocked me to my core”, to quote Peter O’ Toole in his portrayal of Anton Ego, the usual cynical critic in Disney’s Ratatouille.
We have seen great role models experience both triumph and a looming sense of defeat before. John Keating right after he hears the news of Neil Perry’s suicide comes to mind in Dead Poets’. So does Tung-Tung (Dong Dong) in A Summer at Grandpa’s when he hears that his mom is sick in a Taipei hospital and he and his sister Ting-Ting have to spend their summer vacation in the Taiwanese countryside. So does Fang Qiangqiang in Little Red Flowers when he is almost instantaneously labeled a rebel and a freak in the tightly conforming world of a post-1949 Beijing kindergarten center. So does Jesus when he earnestly prays in the Garden of Gethsemane as he sweats drops of blood in both the Passion film as well as in recorded Scripture.
Needless to say these are all classic examples of humans experiencing the sting of human life—when you are caught right in the middle of agony and an almost endless sense of futile frustration, when things don’t go according to plan and when most people are on the edge of giving up.
But here’s the key.
Most of us here would willingly give up in situations like these and surrender ourselves to some impending doom that we all want to foresee. But here’s what I’ve learned in the grand scheme of life: do exactly the opposite.
One of the most motivating teachers I’ve dearly befriended in my high school career, Mr. Jaime Richards, has shown me how to be a rare example or “to be a scarcity” as he puts it in order to resist the temptations of following the herd.
As Keating fluidly describes, numerous high school and college students annually enter a plethora of academic institutions to pursue some dream of going into medicine or law or engineering. But see here’s the thing. Most students tend to dismiss the rather “romanticized” disciplines of English, History, Theology, Art, Drama or Film in order to pursue the more “realist” disciplines of Science or Math, all in the extraneous attempt to first take home a Bachelor’s, and maybe later, a Master’s Degree as well.
Now the ultimate question arises simply, “Why?”
Certainly there are a large combination of factors in giving this answer including money, job security and stability and the political influences that are going on around us, but still, in the grand scheme of things, our academic institutions are producing a whole lot of future doctors, lawyers, engineers, businesspeople and scientists; and needless to say they are important social positions. But unfortunately there’s a flaw in the educational system. We don’t have enough philosophers or writers or artists. No one these days would say being an artist is definitely going to get you anywhere, and in this world, these pursuits have become an exponential taboo of sorts.
I am very sure Mr. Keating would say this is wrong, and very wrong indeed. We aren’t here to make robots or clones. We’re here to build people up, not tear them down. No one I believe should be publicly disgraced because of a noble pursuit. They are uniquely yours and yours alone. This is why I senselessly live by Keating’s, my father’s and Richards’ words.
The world is yours, so go out there and make something out of it.
Too often we forget that everybody dreams a dream and too often do we, “the herd”, dismiss those dreams as rubbish.
Fortunately, I think I’ve found a compromise, and I know that I am not the only individual on planet Earth who’s thought of this I hope. Whether it’d be in the academic field or otherwise pursue that dream and keep it alive, but also keep in mind of those subjects and majors you are required to study for, like math and science; and believe me, math is actually not one of my most favorite subjects.
But my father and Jaime have both expressed similar trains of thought: even if you don’t like something, sometimes those things are still necessary to work at. A strong work ethic comes to mind and of course is required of nearly all students.
The second lesson I’ve picked up from these two men is how we “must constantly look at things in a different way”, and if you’re wondering, yes Keating said that as well. But I can see why it is so vitally important in doing so.
The truth of the matter is that you can’t and won’t experience life in all of its fullness until you take a stroll in someone else’s shoes. If many of you can recall the expression, “walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins” you’ll know exactly what I mean here.
Let us strive to look at life from multiple vantage points because one just isn’t enough. That way you know exactly how and what each and every student in a classroom think and beyond this very point, how to improve their lives subjectively and majestically, as Keating has demonstrated with his students.
Perhaps most of us won’t stand on our desks as Todd Anderson would have when we see our beloved teacher leave the classroom. But I do believe that someone out there will initiate the change and will stand upon their desk as a signal to show that we humans are not just merely animals born to conform by hunting and killing and following the pack. No we are not merely wolves. We are thinkers and dreamers and inspirers.
If there’s one value I place my faith in humanity in, it’s that we are beings who can create and improve on things, and surprisingly enough, we do so all the time.
Therefore, if the adage “to err is to be human”, then aren’t we all indeed human?
Who’s to say we aren’t?
Yes, there will be bumps in the road as anyone would expect, but I realize that one of the most important goals in anyone’s life is to overcome, to the best of our abilities, any hurdle that life will present to us, and secondly, to firmly take a stand for the values that you put your utmost die-hard beliefs in no matter what others think.
That’s what it means to be human…again: to fight our innate pessimistic natures and to be the leading role models for the rest of the world to look upon.
I believe that there’s a Keating buried inside each of us.
~ A Fellow Columnist, Josh Chen.