O Me! O Life! by Walt Whitman

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

You may have heard or seen this quote somewhere in an essay or a keynote address. Most likely you know it from Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society starring Robin Williams as Mr John Keating, that model of an inspirational teacher that I remember seeing during education lectures at university or sometimes professional development days. I reckon that most teachers would watch that and, in their heart of hearts, underneath the palpitations we get from such heartstring-pulling scences, cloaked by the emotional reaction to the soundtrack and dulled by the sentimental flashbacks to our own most inspirational teachers, there is a grumbling little version of us – probably marking – who bemoans him and his inspiration. I’ll certainly admit that I felt a mini-Matt inside me doing some grumbling. Let me explain.

By this I mean that we see the scenes of Mr Keating taking the boys to the soccer field to read aloud lines from literature as they kick the ball as hard as they can and we see them walk around a courtyard trying to live up to Keating’s ideals of non-conformity. We see him inspire (most of) his students to think creatively and critically and, most importantly, freely. At one point, he literally has them tear out part of the curriculum.

This clearly touches several minds in the class. It lights their hearts on fire in different ways: some are inspired to love, others to confrontation, others to dream. Every teacher watching it who considers themselves somewhat passionate about their subject and about teaching would surely think they do this at least once in their career. We can’t do it as consistently as Mr Keating seems to do – and thus the grumbling inner teacher who complains about all the other things we need to do to which we are held accountable.

And that’s my point for this little blog post. After a term of teaching – 11 weeks of quite hard slog at some points – I personally find it hard to be inspirational or passionate all the time about even my most favourite aspects of, say, History. I’d like to think I’m happy in every class, sharing jokes and anecdotes with the kids. We even had Les Miserables playing on the way in and out of a quick double lesson on the French Revolution. I didn’t have the girls standing on the desks – not that I’d let them as those desks are not nearly as sturdy as the oak altars of Mr Keating’s classroom – but I’d like to think they remember it.

I’d like to think that despite all the administration and the policies and procedures and the compliance and the marking and the meetings that at some point I’m able to reach into the hearts and minds of my students and help light something that was previously dim. Perhaps that is what my verse is to be. Surely it’s what all teachers should do: to contribute a verse in the lives of our students. It may not be on the level of Mr Keating and it may not have a noticeable effect on our students at the moment we intend. The effects may be seen much later in life and only by those looking for it. Even the student may not realise it began way back when they were 14 sitting in an English class that it first sparked a desire to look into a particular job or lifestyle choice.

Perhaps your verse may be outside of the classroom. It might be in the staffroom supporting a colleague or sharing your ideas on Twitter or at a teachmeet. Maybe you’ll just tell someone they’ve done a good job when everyone else lets it flow by them in the busy river of the day.

My challenge to you is to see yourself as part of the powerful play. To break free, even for a moment, from the stifling chains of administration and focus all your incandescent energies on making learning more than an outcome from a syllabus. Generate light. Contribute a verse. Make it count.

Thank you to those who have been part of my scene this term and to those who have kindly let me be part of theirs.