The tragic story of John Keating has struck all his biographers as fantastic and incredible, and ultimately — inexplicable. Why, for example, does John Keating first greet his students by walking speechless down the middle of the classroom, and whistling Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture? Why does he refuse to answer to "Mr Keating", or "Sir", but only answers to "O-Captain-My-Captain"? Why does he humiliate students by ridiculing their names? Why does he repeatedly address his students either from a crouching position, or else standing on top of his desk? Why does he have "Thigh Man" opposite his name in his graduation School Annual? Why did he abandon his beloved Clarissa in London to lead a loveless existence in Vermont?
THE SECRET DIARY OF JOHN KEATING
And it is not Keating alone whose behavior seems unaccountable. Why, for example, when introducing John Keating in his Welcome-to-Welton address does Headmaster Nolan omit to laud him for his Cambridge degree? Or when a student tells Nolan that the Pritchard page has been ripped out of everybody's poetry textbook, why does Nolan avoid asking how such a bizarre phenomenon could have taken place?
The list of questions is long, and the answers proposed to date have sparked heated debate, but have led to no agreement. However, the discovery of Keating's Welton-Academy Diary, tucked for more than four decades behind the radiator in what was once his Welton Academy lodging, has begun to clear up some of the mysteries. Many things that for decades had seemed inexplicable, are now beginning to be explained.
Key excerpts from John Keating's secret Diary are reproduced below, taken from the Hooper-Roe-Waddling (2001) unabridged edition. As will become evident to every reader of this diary, Keating appears to have quickly discovered that he could not find time at the end of each day to record its events, and was thus forced to cover increasingly-large intervals per sitting.
Founder of the Dead Poets Society
I apply for the advertised position at Welton Academy, and all other applicants withdraw, in consequence of which I am handed the job. It would seem that obstacles are being removed from my path, as if by a Supreme Being who watches over me and approves of my Dead Poets Society plan.
The other applicants, it seems, ultimately withdrew their applications when they learned of Welton's low wages, of the absence of female students, of Welton being located out in the boondocks, and perhaps most of all of the traditional derision with which Welton boys are known to react to poetry. However, none of these considerations mattered to me in the least. The profound satisfaction of gathering twelve disciples around me, the number that has been foretold, and of winning their dedication, and of creating out of them an indissoluble brotherhood named the Dead Poets Society — this is such a profoundly exciting reward for teaching at Welton, that all the discomforts and insufficiencies which scared off others seem as nothing to me.
For the approaching endeavor I have been preparing all my life, with two earlier initiatives particularly standing out. The first was my attempt at establishing a Dead Poets Society when I myself was a student here at Welton, as evidenced by "Dead Poets Society" being printed under my name in the Welton Academy School Annual in my senior year. However, that entry was made without my permission and even without my knowledge, by malicious students working on the yearbook, not as a recognition but as a jeer at what they considered my delusional presiding over a Society that existed only in my dreams. These hurtful jokesters based their hilarity on the fact that I managed to attract not a single member into my Society, but they failed to take into account the stirrings of interest that I had succeeded in evoking in many to whom I offered membership, even though my offer was ultimately declined.
My second attempt at creating a Dead Poets Society was made when I was both older and wiser, and when my status was not that of a lowly student but that of a teacher, which is when I taught at the renowned Chester School in London. By that time, my plans had crystallized, and I was able to subject to experimental test many leadership techniques, and was able to learn from the results how these needed to be tweaked to work perfectly. My contract with the Chester School not being renewed is evidence of that school's administration becoming alarmed at my remarkable success at winning student loyalty and admiration.
And now my third attempt was about to commence — establishing a Dead Poets Society here at Welton, where the idea was first born, and where I now return fully equipped to finally make that dream come true.
The Welcome to Welton Convocation is tomorrow. Classes start the day after — and that is when the plan will really start rolling.
One anxious moment — Headmaster Nolan introduces me to the audience as having graduated from Welton and then having taught at the prestigious Chester School in London. He must have been deliberately tormenting me. It felt like he had stuck a knife into my chest, and then given it a twist. Bastard!
Everybody knows that one does not start teaching at the exclusive Chester School straight out of Welton high school. What, everybody in the audience must have wondered, did Keating do in between Welton and Chester to qualify himself to teach at Chester? And anyone who remembered the entry "Cambridge bound" under my name in the Welton Academy School Annual in my senior year would be supposing that in that gap I must have graduated from Cambridge, earned a degree there, perhaps more than one degree. But if so, then why did Headmaster Nolan not mention it? The message he's delivering in his address is how great Welton is, and listing the Cambridge degrees of its newly-acquired teacher would add to that greatness. These are the thoughts I feared everybody would be having, and the questions everybody would be asking themselves while Nolan spoke, and asking me afterward.
An yet, no one ended up asking me anything. It seemed that everyone had sat through Nolan's speech without being troubled by his glaring omission. Perhaps no one had really been listening. Perhaps they had all fallen into a hypnagogic trance, sitting with eyes wide open but with brains turned off, for the existence of which trance I am deeply grateful if that's what was responsible, deeply grateful because the hypnagogic trance is what I will be chiefly relying upon to form my Dead Poets Society.
FIRST MEETING, STEP ONE: ESTABLISH TELEPATHIC COMMUNICATION
As I peek around the door to get my first glimpse of the students from whom my Society will be created, I imagine how surprised they are going to be when I begin communicating with them using not the spoken word but the psychic waves of mental telepathy. And so when I make my entrance into the classroom, I walk in saying not a word, looking at no one, all the while whistling, and yet all the while beaming my telepathic vibrations. Almost immediately, I feel my information beginning to flow out to the students, especially to the tall ones, I assume because their bodies were acting as particularly effective antennas, and soon the tuned-in students hushed the chatterboxes who hadn't yet established connectedness and didn't understand what was happening.
I proceeded to walk down the middle of the room, heading for the back door, still saying not a word as words had now been rendered superfluous, still avoiding all eye contact, still whistling, but all the while continuing to radiate my psychic waves. I went so far as to walk out the back door without having uttered a single word, but then realized that expecting full telepathic communication only a few seconds after first contact might have been overly optimistic, and so I stuck my head back in and spoke aloud to them for the first time ever — just three words, and which three words are forever engraved in my memory, just as I am sure they are forever engraved in theirs: "Well, come on".
But I was not about to spoon-feed them the additional information that they needed right at that moment; they were going to have to pluck that out of the air all by themselves. I know, I know — this was like teaching kids to swim by tossing them into the deep end. But my judgment was unerring and they did receive my transmission. The message I was broadcasting was that they needed to bring their blue poetry books because I was going to ask one of them to read "To the Virgins, to make much of Time" which was in that blue book.
I had faith in my boys, and they did not disappoint me. Every last one of them brought the blue book, and not one of them brought any of the other books that were piled on their desks. So much for the naysayers who scoff at mental telepathy.
And so the boys followed me into the foyer, each clutching his blue book, and me continuing to whistle, all the while confident that mental telepathy had been established, and that spoken instructions would have been superfluous, as the boys were reading my wishes, and responding to them as if they were commands. I exclude from consideration having had to say, "Well, come on" — that was before our communication system was fully operational. This was an excellent beginning, but only a beginning, and I paused to catch my breath and recharge my psychic batteries before continuing.
None of this was new to me, I reflected. I had practiced the same technique at the Chester School in London, but with not quite the same positive result I seemed to be getting here at the Welton Academy in Vermont. In London, the students sometimes did not receive my telepathic instructions clearly, and responded with confusion, and there could be heard a murmuring of discontent, instigated commonly, it seemed to me, by ringleader Bodan Kozak, to the effect that moving students around without explanation was treating them like sheep. The Chester authorities and parents seemed unable to keep in mind that people do not usually enjoy telepathic communication with sheep, and that the Chester boys were not without explanation, they were merely without that variety of explanation that was audible to the ear. Had the Brits paid more attention to training their children to establish good telepathic rapport, their so-called sheep would have enjoyed better access to that variety of explanation that is perceptible to the mind.
FIRST MEETING, STEP TWO: ADOPT AWE-INSPIRING NAME
But to be transformed into an effective fighting force, my boys needed to be led not by a mere teacher, but by an absolute commander, and which high quality of leadership I proceeded to give them in a mere three sentences, the very next ones that I uttered after "Well, come on".
I did hear some scattered snickering, and I particularly noticed Knox Overstreet frowning as if in disapproval, and I also particularly noticed Neil Perry grinning broadly, but I couldn't tell if that was in admiration of my title or because he thought I was joking. The boys are able to read my telepathic signals clearly because of the power of my transmission beam; but as they are too immature to be able to generate a beam of the same power, I am sometimes left guessing what's going on in their minds.
But what stands out in my mind now, as I reflect on the event hours later, is how greatly it improves a teacher's happiness to have a class that is not being subverted and sabotaged by a shit-disturber like Bodan Kozak. When my London boys heard the same invitation — that is, the invitation to call me O-Captain-My-Captain — Bodan immediately erupted with "Sir, might we adopt nicknames too, sir? It would only be fair. Because I've always wanted to be addressed as Heil-Führer-Mein-Führer". Another student immediately piped in with "And Heil-Hickler-Mein-Hickler for me, sir, if you are daring enough". Still another boy piped in with "Might you be able to find the daring, sir, to address me as Your Eminence?" And they flooded me in a torrent of similar requests, "O-Generalissimo-My-Generalissimo if your daring is up to it sir", or "If only you would dare to address me as Il-Duce", or "If your daring has not run out, sir, might it be possible for you to address me as O-Attila-My-Attila", and on and on they went, one student after another asking to share the right of adopting a nickname of his own choosing.
Of course I had the good sense to deny all these London requests, for if everybody took a name signifying authority, then the power of my own name to signify the highest authority would be weakened. These London boys would have to earn their stripes before anybody took the trouble to call them anything more than Mr — and even calling students Mr-plus-surname was a prep-school tradition that stuck in my craw, as I did not agree that the boys should be accorded the same status as their teachers, who themselves were called only Mr-plus-surname. Whenever I wanted to demean a boy, I would go out of my way to deviate from the school practice by addressing him by his first name only, which is why I as a rule addressed that troublemaking Bodan Kozak not as Mr Kozak, but only as Bodan.
However, when the very next day Bodan did address me as O-Captain-My-Captain, he introduced a rather striking ornamentation — just as he said O-Captain-My-Captain, he extended his right arm and he clicked his heels. I thought the performance charming, and felt that Bodan was exhibiting a higher degree of cooperation than I had expected, taking the lead, in fact, instead of meekly following, and so I smiled my approval, and from which point on, everybody in the class began saluting and heel-clicking the way Bodan had. What finer way was there to express group solidarity and respect for authority than with just such a title as I had suggested for myself, and with just such an embellishment as the salute-heel-click that the students had originated, I thought. At about that same time, I noticed in a British magazine a photograph of children performing just that salute, and it warmed my heart, and I cut it out of the magazine, and I have that clipping still in my scrap book, and I tape it inside my Welton Diary right now, as a sad reminder of things that I might have achieved in London, had circumstances been more favorable, and at the same time as a beacon of hope for the things that I was beginning to achieve here in Vermont.
And I must confess that whenever I come across photos of children honoring their mentors by means of this charming salute, I am touched to the quick, and whenever possible clip out those photos, and save them in my scrapbook, perusing which brings me peace and reassurance in times of turmoil and disappointment.
I do find it painful to recollect how the Chester School administration looked with disfavor upon my growing rapport with the students. It was not long before I was called down to Headmaster Middlethorpe's office, and subjected to demeaning questions. Was I aware that the Walt Whitman poem was written following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and the person whom Walt Whitman addresses as O-Captain-My-Captain is the deceased president himself, and so that as I did not share the accomplishments, or indeed any of the characteristics, of that late President, and as I had never attained the rank of Captain in any military organization or aboard any maritime vessel, nor in fact any rank whatever anywhere, that there seemed to be an impropriety, or one might say a lack of modesty, or even a touch of delusion of grandeur, in my wishing to appropriate that appellation at this particular time, though heaven knows it was well within the range of the possible that I might come to earn and deserve it at some future date. I found that last comment particularly galling, as it recollected the scene of me as a toddler in my back yard wearing a fireman's hat and holding a running garden hose and calling out "I'm a real fireman! I'm a real fireman!" and having my father hand me a piece of cold reality, tempered by a ray of hope: "Well, no, you're not a real fireman yet, Johnny, but you may well get to be one when you grow up."
I thought of just recently having been Captain of the soccer team at Welton Academy, but bit my tongue and let Middlethorpe continue.
"Not trying to set up some sort of Nazi sleeper cell at Chester School, are you, old boy?" asked Middlethorpe, chuckling with fake joviality. "Nothing of the sort, sir", I retorted jauntily. And, Middlethorpe continued, "I fear that here in England we've had a pretty nasty encounter with Heil-Führer-Mein-Führer just a few years ago, and that salute with heel-click that it has come to my attention your class is practicing is capable of giving some people the impression that you are among Mein Führer's admirers."
I was instantly struck by Headmaster Middlethorpe using the same title that Bodan had requested for himself — Heil-Führer-Mein-Führer — and from which it dawned on me that Bodan and Middlethorpe had been talking about me, undoubtedly conspiring against me, and so it was with a rush of anger that I burst out with, "I'll have you know that that salute is of Roman origin, that it was in widespread use even before Roman times, and that it will undoubtedly continue to be used far into the future. It was not invented by Hitler and it would be unfair to identify it with Hitler. It would be no more logical to disapprove of my boys using this Roman salute than it would be to disapprove of somebody speaking German or growing a mustache or eating bratwurst".
To my devastatingly logical and unanswerable statement, Headmaster Middlethorpe sat for a moment in silence, no doubt struggling to come up with some counter-argument of his own, but unable to in the face of my irrefutable logic, and for that reason, I suppose, he changed the subject. "Have you recently read Elizabeth Barrett Braunig's poem, How Do I love thee?" to which I gave him a smart answer: "Well, not today, I haven't read it if that's what you mean by recently." I knew I had him there, but he smiled as if he were smarter than me — what else, at that point, could the poor bugger do? — and went on to quote a line of Braunig's, something about "I love thee surely, despite thy nays" or it might have been "I love thee purely, all of my days," or something trite like that. He actually seemed to believe that the line contained some profound message relevant to my O-Captain-My-Captain status, something about immodesty, but I thought to myself, Talk about immodesty! Look who was being immodest! Every single time I quote an American poet like Walt Whitman, they quote a Brit back to me. Is that modest? Do they really want to hold that up as a model of modesty? They're just honking their own horn is all they're doing. It's always their tit for my tat. I give them an immortal American poet, like WW, and they hand me back an unknown Brit, like this Braunig woman, whoever she may be, and as if any female could ever be a real poet. A pretend poet — sure! A would-be poet — I'll grant that possibility. But why would I be here in this all-boys school if I could for a moment bring myself to believe that a woman could be a bona fide poet? Really, I ask you that: Why would I be here?
Anyway, Headmaster Middlethorpe's message rang loud and clear — don't ever quote an American poet over on this side of the Atlantic, if you please, when we've got so many of our own poets waiting in line to be quoted. What really gets these Brits, it is abundantly clear, is that WW did not rhyme. He saw no use for it. He simply realized that rhyming was for children, and that adults didn't need it. And so, yes, WW does not rhyme, and this whats-her-name Braulig, or whatever, apparently does. I remember it now. I'm pretty sure her poem, if a two-liner can be called a poem, goes something like this:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.|
I love thee purely, as men yearn for praise.
Did you catch the rhyme there? The Brits think that's just the cat's pajamas. They lean on it, like on a crutch. Been leaning on it so long, they think they can't do without it. But in any case I don't see Braulig's relevance to the phenomenon of my students showing me a modicum of respect and affection by addressing me as O-Captain-My-Captain, and so on.
And after laying his British poetry on me, if you can call it that, Headmaster Middlethorpe thinks he'll one-up me still another notch with a bit of Latin, and he spouts some gibberish, but I'm ready for him, and I pretend to be unfamiliar with his particular Latin accent, letting him know thereby that his pronunciation is so bad that it makes what he's saying unintelligible, so could he give me that in English, and he proceeds to write down what he thinks the English is, as if he expects that I won't remember it otherwise, and he's right there. Why would I bother remembering it? My mind is so full of important things that I make a point of excluding from it everything unimportant, which I guess Headmaster Middlethorpe has come to appreciate, and to respect. So he writes it down, his little piece of Latin wisdom, on a scrap of paper, and I take his scrap of paper, and I peer at it closely, just so as to make him worry that I'm finding errors in his translation, or defects in his spelling or in his handwriting, or something like that, and what he has written on that scrap of paper is indeed worthy of attention — but only for its entertainment value as nonsense. I've kept that scrap of paper and am taping it into my diary right now:
I would much rather have men ask why I have no statue, than why I have one. — Marcus Porcius Cato, the Elder, 234-149 B.C.
And when I first read that scrap of paper, it is all I can do to keep from laughing out loud. Like one thing jumps right out at me — he's got Cato dying before he was even born. Go figure! And like he's got to remind me that this is the Elder, as if I was too dumb to know that it is indeed the chubby Cato, "Porky" to his friends, who is "the Elder", and of course his son is slimmer in comparison, but is remembered mainly not for his successful weight-loss program, but only for being "the Younger". Anyway, I told Headmaster Middlethorpe in no uncertain terms, "If people can't find Cato's statue, it's probably because it's not on the tourist maps, but that doesn't mean it's completely lost. When they do locate it again, they can put it on the maps, and Porky can stop worrying about it (in his grave I mean, because despite the mixup in his dates, it's clear that he was before our time).
And then, Headmaster Middlethorpe hurled his final insult at me when he insinuated that my London boys agreeing to address me as O-Captain-My-Captain, and demanding titles of their own, and their saluting and clicking heels, was all part of their mockery of my pretension, but which insinuation I was able to convince him was unfounded. "I can distinguish the four-syllable 'sincerity' from the two-syllable 'satire' perfectly well, thank you very much, and I see nothing but sincerity in my London boys." With the possible exception of Bo, I might have added, whose enthusiasm so far exceeds that of the other boys as to occasionally give me unease.
But there is nothing like that London kerfuffle here at the Welton Academy. My American boys happily began calling me O-Captain-My-Captain, and without demanding titles of their own and without the saluting and heel clicking, and not a word of protest, or even inquiry, from the administration either. Not to say that I didn't have to give my American boys a reminder now and then — they were, after all, just boys, as yet only aspiring to perfection, and so they were capable of forgetfulness, and so they were in need of the occasional reminder.
Take that time they were chasing me across the lawn, calling out, "Mr Keating! Mr Keating". Stupid little bastards, thought I, can't they get it through their thick skulls that my name is O-Captain-My-Captain? I'll just keep on walking without turning to look at them. That'll teach them. Why should I turn around when someone is calling a name that is not my name? And I'll inform them of their error only telepathically. No need for words between us, who are as one, at least no need for a superfluity of words.
So, I just keep walking, and whistling. My whistling is my signal that they are supposed to tune in on the telepathy channel. My walking and whistling reminds me of that blessed first day when I led them down to the foyer, and of the telepathic rapport that we had established between us then and forever. And soon — back to the lawn story — within seconds, really, the message flashes across their mental screens — ERROR! — and they remember that I am not Mr Keating — never have been, really — and they next try calling out "Sir!" but dammit, that isn't good enough either. They leave me no choice but to keep on walking, keep on pretending to be absorbed by my whistling, like I was composing a new symphony in A flat minor, or something.
And finally the boy geniuses behind me get it — "O-Captain-My-Captain" I finally hear one of them call out, Neil Perry it sounds like. The blessed words have been spoken, the Open Sesame to my heart has been uttered, and so I turn around to them beaming. All is forgiven, boys, I still love you despite your forgetfulness, think I. Let's make a fresh start together, a start unblemished by lack of respect for him who is your O-Captain-My-Captain.
I don't want to make a federal case out of a peccadillo, but I do wonder why Charlie Dalton is the only one among us in his shirtsleeves and with his collar unbuttoned and his tie loose? Sloppy dress gives the impression that a boy has not learned proper respect, and that he may even be out of control. "Loose tie means loose cannon", as Headmaster Middlethorpe used to say back in London.
FIRST MEETING, STEP 3: RIDICULE STUDENT NAMES
Next on my agenda was to make fun of the students' names, and to rub in the fact that the students are stuck with their ridiculous names for life.
It starts with my eye being caught on my class list by the name Gerard Pitts, and I can't help thinking "The name Pitts is the pits!" Ha, ha — good one! I am aware of other associations, as for example to the city of Pittsburgh, named after the distinguished British statesman, William Pitt — but why would I bring positive associations such as these to a student's attention? To do so would be to puff up the student in his own estimation, to make him arrogant, to render him ungovernable. Effective leadership necessitates the humiliation of followers, necessitates essentially abusing them so as to turn them into cringing, snivelling masochists. That way, if they are ever given a command that will be difficult to carry out, that will cause pain to carry out, that will expose them to danger — well, then they will carry out that command if and only if I've habituated them to eating excrement on command. People love the things for which they suffer, and if you deny them their suffering, they will deny you their love.
And after I'm done humiliating Pitts, I turn on Meeks, my free association here being not to the political leaders, writers, academics, actors, and so on, who have borne that surname, but to the Biblical expression, The meek shall inherit the earth. I call the Meeks name "unusual", but everybody knows that I mean "unfortunate", which is the word I just used in the case of Pitts. Meeks grins at my sneering at his name, showing that he is indeed meek. That's exactly the kind of boy I need for my Society. If only all the boys in the class were as meek as Meeks.
But only two names sneered at during that first class! Well, two is better than none, but far from a strong performance. If I had had a chance to scan the class list beforehand, I would have discovered other opportunities.
Todd Anderson, for example. Tod is German for death. Wow, I could really have hurt that guy, particularly as he seems to be already hyper-sensitive. Never mind, though, it's never too late. I'll make up for my omission later. I'll have him so awash in humiliation that he'll be my slave forever, and all the other students will respect and fear me for being able to reduce him to such abject misery. "If you don't cheer up, Todd", I'll say, putting heavy emphasis on the Todd, "you'll bring death to everything you touch". Or, how about, "Look out, guys, here comes Mr Death Anderson!"
Neil Perry: The reason you can't resist your over-controlling dad, Mr Perry, is that you've never learned to thrust and parry.
Knox Overstreet: Better choose a career other than banking, Mr Knox Overstreet, because he who knocks over a street today is sure to knock over a bank tomorrow. Mr Knoxious Overstreet.
Richard Cameron: Stop jostling to always get on camera, Mr Cameron.
Charlie Dalton: ..... Charlie Dalton ... I say! Alas! Nothing! I enter a state of mental paralysis. I who am gifted with the knack of finding a demeaning free association for everything and everybody, come up with nothing for the name Charlie Dalton. I struggle and struggle for some association that I can put to use, however forced, however far-fetched, however wildly irrelevant, but my mind remains blank. How to explain such a strange paralysis? It is as if Charlie Dalton has a protective wall around him, a wall so thick and solid that nothing can break through. It is as if the Supreme Being were telling me, "These others I give you to rule over, but Charlie Dalton you may not touch, for I have given him an extraordinary assignment, with which even you will not be allowed to interfere." Ah ... if that's the case, I'd better not count on Charlie to join my Dead Poets Society.
At our Read-Kick-Exercise a few days later, I let Pitts and Meeks know that my contempt for their names has not abated, and I begin to elaborate just where that contempt originates — that Pitts is suggestive of lowliness and that Meeks is suggestive of meekness. There are many things that the boys learn at Welton that they will sooner or later forget; in fact, almost everything they learn here they will soon enough forget. But there is one thing that I teach a boy that he will never forget, that he will remember to his dying day — and that is that I found his name ridiculous and laughable, and that the overriding sentiment that his name evoked in me was contempt.
My extra jab at Pitts and Meeks during that Read-Kick-Exercise, by the way, was just icing on the cake. The cake itself was that the Read-Kick-Exercise did achieve its primary goal.
I should explain that each student read aloud from a piece of paper containing a random snippet from Walt Whitman's Poems of Joy (the snippets ranging from seven to twelve words each). Or it may be Poem of Joys — I can't remember which. Doesn't matter, as I never told the boys who wrote those lines or in what work they appeared. Meeks, as I recall, meekly read out "To dance, clap hands, exalt, shout, skip". I-don't-remember-who next read out "To be a sailor of the world bound for all ports". You get the idea. Charlie Dalton commented later, "That was about as effective in teaching poetry as would the following be effective in teaching drama: read twenty lines randomly lifted out of Hamlet, in any order and without any comment, and without the student being told that the author of the lines was William Shakespeare and that the work from which the lines were lifted was a play called Hamlet."
And after reading the snippet aloud, the student kicked a soccer ball that had been set up in front of him. And that's it! If it's complexity you want, don't look at me. It's simple but effective that I deliver.
After class, Charlie Dalton came up to me and said that he had been particularly impressed by the quote about dancing, clapping hands, exalting, shouting, and skipping because it was important to remind teenagers of how much fun kindergarten had been. I thanked him for his kindness. Then he asked what the difference was between "exalt" and "exult". I said to him, "What am I, a dictionary?"
Later that day, Charlie Dalton hunted me down and began to natter at me. "What was the purpose of that Read-Kick-Exercise, what was it supposed to achieve, what skill did it hope to strengthen?" — questions which Charlie expected would be terribly insulting to me because he was sure that the only answers would have to be that it had no purpose, that it aimed to achieve nothing, that it strengthened no skill.
However, those were not at all the true answers, and on Charlie Dalton I decided to try the radical approach of proclaiming the truth, to which I guessed he might be receptive from something I overheard right after the Welcome-to-Welton Convocation, the Convocation in which the Welton Four Pillars had been paraded. I had been prowling the dormitory halls, beginning to identify students who might be candidates for membership in my Dead Poets Society, when through a door slightly ajar I espied Charlie, though at the time I did not know his name, sitting on a bed and lighting up a cigarette, with I couldn't see how many other students in the room, and perverting Welton's four pillars from the official Tradition, Honor, Discipline, Excellence to his own Travesty, Horror, Decadence, and Excrement. Excrement, I thought — now there's a word that describes perfectly everything that goes on at Welton. I'll have to begin teaching my boys to use that word more often. And how about that Charlie! From what I have just heard through that crack in the door, it seems we have a lot in common. He definitely goes on my A list of Dead Poets Society candidates! And what an unmistakable sign of his leadership I had just glimpsed — it was not Charlie reciting that revised list of Pillars alone, it was Charlie leading all the boys in the room to recite the revised list in unison. The recitation was a unanimous declaration of hatred toward Welton, and so we were unmistakably on the same wave length. There is nothing which stirs my admiration more than seeing boys doing something in unison, because unison performance is indicative of strong group cohesion and of the existence of a strong leadership which creates that cohesion.
And so I responded to Charlie's query concerning the Read-Kick-Exercise as if speaking to almost an equal, a co-conspirator at any rate, perhaps even a co-leader of the Dead Poets Society. "The immediate purpose of the Read-Kick-Exercise was to plunge the boys into what teachers call passivity, into what psychologists call a hypnagogic trance, and into what mystics call Samadhi, Union with the Divine.
"And," queried Charlie, "passivity is desirable because ... ?"
"Passivity is synonymous with readiness to obey, and the greater the readiness to obey, the stronger will be our Dead Poets Society."
"And the passivity is induced how?"
"Youth naturally abhors passivity, but can become first resigned to it, and then addicted, by simply enforcing passivity as totally as possible and for as long as possible. The Read-Kick-Exercise is enforced passivity designed to further entrench passivity as a habit.
"Consider that during the one hour scheduled for my poetry class, each student Read-Kicked exactly once. If I had prepared another set of quotations, I could have had them run through the procedure a second time, but that preparation would have been too much work for me. And having them go through a second Read-Kick, would have been working against my purpose, which was to habituate the students to doing as little as possible, and that is why I preferred to see the remainder of the period pissed away.
"And now comes the good part. Please notice that the time that it takes for a single Read-Kick is approximately 6 seconds. Of the 3,600 seconds available in the hour, then, 6 seconds were spent in activity, and 3,594 seconds were spend in passivity, which gives Passivity Index = 99.83%. And so what role can I be said to have been playing during this Read-Kick-Exercise? The role of a teacher of English Literature or of Language Skills? Well, yes, for about half of those 6 active seconds, let's say for 3 seconds. Also the role of a teacher of Phys Ed? Well, yes, also for about the 3 seconds that it took to run at and kick the ball. And perhaps also the role of a teacher of Samadhi? Well, rather! Passivity always tops the curriculum at Welton Academy. No matter what the students are ostensibly learning, what they predominantly learn is to do nothing and to say nothing and to think nothing. Anyone who saw us out on that field would have noticed that most of the students most of the time were standing in line waiting. It's waiting that Welton teaches 99% of the time, and then generously allocates the remaining 1% to all the lesser subjects, like English and Math and Chemistry. I always work at lifting my Passivity Index way above 99%, and I was pleased on this occasion to achieve that pretty impressive 99.83%, which I do not deny gives me pleasure to cite again. Given how little of either reading or kicking it involved, that period would more accurately be labelled as the No-Reading-No-Kicking-Non-Exercise.
"Not only did I require next to nothing of the boys during that period, but I habituated them also to refrain from doing any of the several things that they might naturally have tended to do. For example, no one but you asked what the purpose of the Read-Kick-Exercise was or what skills it aimed to develop. No one asked who the author of the snippets was, or from which of his works they were taken. No one asked to see the whole work from which the snippets were taken, so that they could see the big picture and what the author was getting at. The students had been stripped of the least stirring of interest or of curiosity. Their tongues were so leaden that they could not bring themselves to speak. All questioning seemed burdensome and purposeless and wearying. Had I spoken to them of any of these questions concerning what they were reading, and why, they would have recoiled from me as a bearer of burdensome trivia. They didn't know, and they didn't want to know, and over the years, successive waves of them sit quietly as prisoners serving their sentences, looking forward only to the day that they are released from Welton Penitentiary, the institution which is notorious for being so often mislabelled Welton Academy."
Charlie listened attentively, I think impressed by the detail and clarity of my exposition, indicating by his silence that he was interested in hearing more, and so I continued.
"I can well imagine that other teachers of Passivity would be jealous of the superlative Passivity Indexes that I tend to claim for myself, and would call them inflated, and would try to knock them down. The students on this Read-Kick-Exercise, my envious critics might argue, did walk out to the field, and then walked back off it — which two walks were physical activity. And even standing requires exertion, and so all the standing time could be counted as physical activity as well. And the students did exchange some banter with each other, which talking could be counted as verbal activity which builds verbal skills. And actual class time in every hour is only 50 minutes, might say my critics, the period ending formally ten minutes before the next hour.
"Well, yes, I would have to concede to such critics, as long as we are conscious, we can always be considered to be using our muscles and our brains, and can often be seen to be talking too — but from this point of view boys that don't go to school at all, who merely wander the streets, could be considered to be highly active both physically and verbally. But the behavior that I call active is performing tasks specially designed to create some skill that otherwise would remain uncreated, from which point of view standing in line while occasionally exchanging a few words with others in the same line must be considered not active education but passive killing time. And that ten-minute gap between classes, occupied by going to one's locker to switch textbooks, or going to the john, must by the same criterion also be counted as passive because empty of educational exercise, and so needing to be included as passive time within either the class just completed or within the class about to begin. What I would recommend to critics envious of my high Passivity Index scores is that they adopt my method of computing the Passivity Index, and work at raising their performance up to my level rather than trying to pull mine downward.
"But, my envious critics might argue further, maybe the students benefit not only from themselves reading, but from hearing other students read? I would reply to these critics that students shut out the reading of others as effectively as they shut out any other annoying background noise.
"You said earlier that the immediate purpose of your Read-Kick-Exercise was to induce passivity. Are you, then, actuated by some ultimate purpose?"
"My ultimate purpose is to destroy Welton," which extreme confession I expected would surprise Charlie, but all I could read on his face was merriment, as if such a goal did not surprise him in the least.
"But," objected Charlie, "if all teachers are trying to increase their own Passivity Indexes, does this mean that all teachers are working to destroy Welton?"
"For the moment, let us entertain the hypothesis merely that all teachers struggle toward the goal of increasing student passivity, but that their motivation varies, and so that many Welton teachers, whose pay comes from Welton coffers, are not at all interested in destroying Welton, but nevertheless work to increase student passivity for other reasons.
"And so," I concluded, "Welton does not educate, Welton makes it impossible to educate, and that is why I do not come to Welton to educate. I come to Welton to destroy Welton. I come to lead a rebellion of the enslaved, for the purpose of releasing them from slavery. In order for my rebellion to succeed, I need first to create a loyal and dedicated cadre of rebels, which I call, for purposes of misdirection, the Dead Poets Society. The only reason I do not call myself Spartacus is that it would reveal my purpose and muster the defenders of Welton to the ramparts."
Charlie's eyes lit up somewhat at my peroration, and I though that perhaps I had hooked him. He was ready to be recruited into the Dead Poets Society, I judged, but not as one of the sheep, but rather as apprentice shepherd. He was naturally predisposed to be disgruntled with Welton, and he could not but be moved by having been implicitly offered co-leadership of the rebellion.
But to get back to my thread, the thread of sneering at names, I find that almost as good as making fun of a boy's name is calling him a name. In my first week of teaching at Welton, I have already called Knox Overstreet a twerp, and I have already suggested that Todd Anderson — poor Todd! — may be an amoeba.
I particularly target Todd Anderson because his pathological shyness makes him particularly vulnerable. For example, knowing the trepidation he is experiencing in anticipation of having to read out to the class a poem of his own composition, I draw the class's attention to that fear, then I belittle him for his fear by calling him a mole.
I am particularly pleased by my manner of delivering that gem. You remember how I delivered the line, "Well, come on"? Yes, at the back door of the class, about to make my departure, already partway out, but leaning back into the classroom. Such stylistic enhancements go a long way toward making a statement memorable. So effective has it been that I'll look for opportunities to employ it in the future. Might seem pointless to some, but it takes no more than a handful of gimmicks like this to keep the kids amused and to earn one the reputation of being a gifted teacher.
And please not to forget my finishing touch, indicative of my high accomplishment in the field of educational artistry — I flip off the lights, leaving Mr Death Anderson standing up on my desk in pitch darkness with the callous laughter of his classmates ringing in his ears.
And of course my public humiliation of Mr Death Anderson, or of anybody, does not have to be concentrated into a single word, it can be a mini psychoanalysis which devastates him personally, and which shreds whatever scrap of respect he has left among his classmates.
The above illustrates an ingenious method of humiliation that I use as often as I can, which is to ask a yes-no question to which either answer looks bad. For example, when I asked Todd "Isn't that right, Todd? Isn't that your worst fear?", if he answers "Yes, my worst fear is that I am worthless" then he looks bad, but if he answers "No, I have an even worse fear than being worthless", he looks even worse, especially if he is asked to elaborate what that even worse fear is.
I cannot help recollecting how that vicious London troublemaker Bodan attempted to escape from exactly this same trap — unsuccessfully, I am pleased to recall. I did once say to him in front of the class much the same thing that I said to Todd: "Bodan thinks everything inside of him is worthless and embarrassing. Isn't that right, Bodan? Isn't that your worst fear?", to which Bodan retorted coolly, "Not at all, Mr Keating. I confess to having an even worse fear than that. Much worse," and after a significant pause, he broke the stunned silence in the room, with the further admission, which he uttered in almost a whisper, "Much, much worse."
Of course I felt a rush of anger at his impertinence. "Mr Keating"? — Where was that coming from? Who the hell is "Mr Keating"? What happened to O-Captain-My-Captain? What happened to the Roman salute plus heel click? I had obviously wounded him, and he was obviously retaliating by becoming insolent, as immature people are wont to do.
But in any case, you see that he had fallen right into my trap, because now he could not avoid being asked what that "much, much worse" fear was, and which would reveal some laughable phobia, or other crippling emotional disorder. I of course proceeded to spring the trap by asking, "And would you mind our asking, Bodan, what that much, much worse fear is?" to which he replied, in a still quiet and now somewhat lazy voice, "My even worse fear is having an English teacher who..." and then he seemed to wander off into a reverie and failed to complete his sentence.
I could see that I had driven Bodan into a corner, and was not about to let him escape his deserved humiliation. If his much, much worse fear was, as he had begun to say, of an English teacher of some sort, then nothing could be plainer than that his much, much worse fear was of me, me the English teacher to whom all his weaknesses were an open book, me who was able to diagnose and catalog all his neuroses from A to Z, who could peer into his very soul with my spiritual X-ray vision, who could rule over him, and so when Bodan failed to complete his sentence, I prompted him to continue toward his further self-abasement, "If you will permit me to remind you, Bodan, you were about to tell us what your much, much worse fear is," to which he replied, with the entire class now listening with the keenest interest to what they knew was going to be a deeply personal revelation of the crippling fear of being dominated by a man of genius, "Oh, excuse me. I was distracted. But to resume — I was saying that my even worse fear is having an English teacher who", and here he maddeningly paused at exactly the same place as before, but did manage to pick up again just as my exasperation was mounting to the point where I was about to give him a further prod, "my even worse fear is having an English teacher who does not realize that when one preposition suffices, it is symptomatic of an imperfect command of English to insert two".
"What in the world are you talking about", I ejaculated, unable to contain my impatience, as he had monopolized class attention beyond the limit of my endurance, and in the end appeared to have nothing to say.
"Please excuse me for not being more particular. I had in mind 'inside of him', which when I heard it issuing from your own lips a few moments back, grated. 'Inside him', you see, would have sufficed. 'Inside of him', is cluttered in an under-educated sort of way. In better circles, to give an everyday example, we say 'Put the letter inside the envelope'. It is the lower classes who say, 'Put the letter inside of the envelope.' In better circles, we say "Peel the label off the blackboard," but we do not emulate the lower classes by saying "Peel the label off of the blackboard," and so on. But," he added, "I hope that my candid confession of a phobic aversion to stylistic gaffes has not given you offence?"
"I am not in the least offended", answered I, quivering with rage. "But I do note with concern your disrespect toward the better circles to which you allude, and within which you include yourself, in that you depict them as having become so addicted to indolence that they shun the labor of uttering the two-letter word 'of'. We of the more vigorous classes are so amply blessed with vitality that we rather seek than avoid the labor of adding embellishment and amplification to our utterances." To this, Bodan responded with a wide grin, as if he was sure that I was kidding, and expected me to prove it by bursting out in laughter myself. But when I kept my angry expression, he soon turned to his work and was heard from no more during that class, not only because he could offer no reply to my devastating riposte, but also perhaps — I am able to guess in retrospect — because he became absorbed in plotting his revenge for my having reaffirmed my intellectual dominance over him.
And I did feel revenge fall heavy upon my head — if not from Bodan, then from whom? — and almost crush me, beginning that same day. First came the summons to the Headmaster's office, where Headmaster Middlethorpe informed me of the implicit existence of what he called a leading and unbreakable rule not only of good breeding and gentlemanly conduct, but also of good teaching, which rule was never to make fun of, never even to make the slightest allusion to, traits which an individual is not responsible for and cannot change. "No gentleman, and certainly no teacher, ever makes fun of someone because he is too short, or too tall. Because his nose is crooked. Because he is ugly. Because he stutters. Because he is nearsighted. Because he has freckles. Because he has a nervous twitch. Because he is bald. Because he is hirsute. Because he is bow-legged. Because he limps. Never!" Headmaster Middlethorpe slams his bear-paw of a hand on the table so forcefully that it reverberates throughout the building. "And names are most emphatically subsumed under this rule", he adds. "One never — and I mean never — makes fun of, or snickers at, or raises one's eyebrows at, or gives any sign of being surprised at, or any sign of being aware of the irregularity of — anyone's name. That is definitive, that is final, there are no exceptions — do you understand?"
"But of course," I answer, giving him to understand that the principle just enunciated is so unanimously agreed upon that I could not guess what all his fuss was about. Despite my conciliatory tone, Headmaster Middlethorpe brusquely leads me to the door, almost pushes me out, and closes it behind me without saying another word.
In our next poetry class, Bodan puts a question to me, in front of the entire class. "Please, O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Click, I wonder if it is the case that every name or surname can be made fun of because it can be associated with something unattractive?"
I answer the only way I know how — with the truth. "No, that is most certainly not the case. Some surnames cannot be sullied, others attract dirt."
But then Bodan follows up with a second question, "But if a name can be associated with something demeaning, isn't this an accident which has no relevance to the worth of the individual bearing that name, and for that reason should pass unmentioned and even unnoticed?"
"No", I answered truthfully as before, "an individual's worth can be measured by the nature of the associations that his name evokes, and bringing those associations to public notice serves to properly rank that individual in society".
"Thank you for your clarification, O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Click," says Bodan, and sits down. But I can see that there must be something in what I have just said which displeases him. He peers down at his notebook, either writing something in it, or purposelessly doodling, but then raises his hand once more. I nod at him to speak, he jumps up.
"Oh-Captain-My-Captain-salute-click, do you think it is the case that some people, under some circumstances, cannot understand a thing by having it explained to them, but can be brought to understand it by the method of tu quoque?"
"Tu quoque?" I ask.
"Allow me to re-phrase that, O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Click. Might it be the case that sometimes a person can be brought around to understanding something only when the shoe is on the other foot?"
"I have no idea what you are talking about, young man," I hiss at him, "and you had better just sit down and get back to your work if you know what's good for you." I was really running out of patience with this whippersnapper. His interminable digressions, and his insistence on speaking in riddles would have brought down a much sharper rebuke from any but myself.
"Yes, O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Click, thank you O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Click" says Bo, sitting down, but the troubled look on his face has vanished, as if some question had been decided, as if there were no longer any doubt about what he needed to do. And I notice just now that I wrote this name not as Bodan, but as Bo! What has gotten into me? That is what his London classmates call him.
It did not escape my notice that in every location in his speech where Bo might naturally have said sometimes "Mr Keating" and more often simply "Sir," he was substituting O-Captain-My-Captain and then that infernal salute plus heel click, and that the effect, though highly ingratiating at first, especially if appearing only rarely, had begun to pall, and in fact had begun to seem repetitive and burdensome. I wondered if in any future opportunities to create additional Dead Poet Societies I might not substitute the much briefer "Captain" for what now appeared to be an unwieldy "O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Click"? Two syllables instead of six does begin to seem a great relief, and the one-syllable "Chief" — why wouldn't that be just as good? And, speaking of a monosyllabic alternative, there is "Sir" which was what Bo would have said in the normal course of events, if I had never mandated O-Captain-My-Captain. "Yes, sir" began to seem wonderfully efficient in comparison to "Yes, O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Click." All that verbiage, and all the strutting that the students added to the verbiage, slowed communication to a crawl. This conservative view is something I might keep in mind when setting up future Dead Poet Societies, but for now I have made my bed and I must lie on it. To retract or revise is something no teacher allows himself to do out of fear that students will pounce on it as a sign of weakness and indecision.
And in any case, it is not my obligation to strive toward efficient communication. The students don't have anything to communicate anyway — they are too young to know anything, and neither are they gifted with insight and perspicacity as I am. Their proper role is to absorb my wisdom and to obey my commands. If a good part of their speech is given to paying respect to their leader, then their time cannot be better spent.
That evening, a shocking thing happened. I heard a scuffling outside the door of my chamber, and expected it to be followed by a knock, or perhaps an envelope slid under the door — but there followed only silence, so I threw open the door, but found no one outside. Looking around I noticed that a piece of paper had been taped to the door, with just one strip of tape along the top, probably attached beforehand to the paper so that it could be affixed to the door with a single motion of the hand, in a split second. I have kept that paper, and others, as evidence of the ordeals that I was called upon to endure in that hellhole of a Chester School in London, though archived not in my scrapbook, because my scrapbook is reserved for items of happiness, of which this was not one.
The paper seemed to be a commercial label for a KEATING'S POWDER intended for use as an insecticide. Further inquiry revealed that KEATING'S POWDER is a pyrethrum-based insecticide that has until recently been a household name in Britain, and that even today, tins containing some of the powder can still be found in London households, or that sometimes the emptied containers might have been kept for other uses, to hold buttons or paper clips, for example, so that it was not at all unusual to see labels of this sort still affixed to their original tin cans, especially in people's basements or garages. Needless to say, I found the prominent KEATINGS POWDER KILLS and the smaller EVERY ONE KILLED disconcerting, and the figure on the label positively satanic. If the powder was manufactured by a Mr Keating, then that must be Mr Keating himself sitting on his can of insecticide, glorying in his power not only to kill, but to have EVERY ONE KILLED.
You can imagine how enraged I was to have my name associated with such odious ideas and images, and with what fury I threw the evidence of my torment on Headmaster Middlethorpe's desk next morning, and with what righteous indignation I demanded protection against my tormentors.
Headmaster Middlethorpe, however, seemed surprisingly calm and unsympathetic. "This isn't simply a case of the shoe being on the other foot, is it?" he asked.
The expression struck me like a thunderclap. That Headmaster Middlethorpe was using it here today when Bodan had used it just yesterday could not be mere coincidence. The two of them — Bo and Headmaster Middlethorpe — were obviously in cahoots, which I had already sensed when Bo had first used Heil-Führer-Mein-Führer in class, and Headmaster Middlethorpe had repeated the same expression to me in his office later that same day. This KEATING'S POWDER label on the door, then, was not just the caprice of a mischievous student, it was a conspiracy which included at least classroom ringleader Bo and school ringleader Headmaster Middlethorpe. I was surrounded by enemies dedicated to my destruction. I was aghast. I struggled for breath. I staggered out of the Headmaster's office, barely mustering the strength to walk, hardly knowing where I was, or whither I was going. I found myself stumbling into a classroom, and dimly realized that this was my own classroom — at least I had gotten that much right. Yes, these were my students, and they were already primly awaiting my arrival. I sat down at my desk, and after straightening my things — I was stalling for time until I could regain my composure — I looked up at my students, and every last one of them was looking not at me but at something behind me. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. I was flooded with a horror that some monster stood behind me, a monster that had gained control over my boys, a monster that commanded their full attention, and controlled their wills, and I was struck with terror at the thought that these children had been captivated by evil, and had now been transformed into the soldiers of evil, and I did not dare to look around at that evil behind me, and yet out of fear that an axe from behind was about to come crashing down on my skull, I did wheel around, raising my arm above my head to ward off the blow, fighting for air in convulsive gasps, but found no demon, no axe man, just a sheet of paper taped to the blackboard, a sheet of paper I had not noticed upon entering the classroom because my gaze had been turned more downward toward the floor, and more leftward, toward the students and thus away from the blackboard.
And yet this sheet of paper was not much less terrifying than would have been the presence of a devil, so distraught and pent-up was I, because it was supernatural for a piece of paper to exercise such power over all the children in a room, and I feared that lightning bolts would shoot out from it, or devouring flames, or that it would leap out at me and claw out my eyes like a bat out of hell, and for a moment I felt ready to obey an impulse to flee the room, but nevertheless, as if moved by some unseen hand, I did approach it, and discovered that it was another KEATING'S POWDER KILLS label, almost as horrible as the original satanic version, displaying a gigantic cockroach standing upright on its hind legs, crying into a handkerchief over the dead bodies of its fellow cockroaches, and lamenting KEATING'S AGAIN. I peeled the label off of the blackboard, and sat down at my desk with the paper in my hand, staring at it blankly while not seeing it at all, and only gradually reawakening to my obligations as teacher, and as supreme commander, I asked "Who taped this KEATING'S POWDER label to the blackboard," and several students , almost in unison, jumped out of their seats to proclaim, "It is not a KEATING'S POWDER label, O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Click!".
The stable and predictable world that I had once inhabited had vanished, replaced by a topsy-turvy world of surprises and incongruities. This army of evil in front of me, these slaves of the devil, which they once again appeared to be, who used to be my poetry students, were chanting words commanded by the devil himself, and the words bore no relation to reality. What did it all mean? "Bo," I pleaded, "what does this mean? Why is the class telling me that this is not a KEATING'S POWDER label?"
"It says POWER on the label O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Click, not POWDER," was Bodan's instant reply. "It says KEATING'S POWER KILLS, O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Click. We noticed it as we entered the room, O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Click. The label was already on the blackboard when we came in, O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Click, and we were able to read it then, O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Click."
"But how is that possible, Bo?" I blurted out, somehow turning to him as one who was likely to know. "It's a POWDER that was being sold in cans, wasn't it? How is it possible that it says POWER on this label?"
"We don't know, O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Click," answered Bo, and sat down, apparently able to throw no further light on the matter, or unwilling to.
A curse was raining down on me from the skies. It threatened to bury me. It was an avalanche which was sweeping me away. If the world believed that KEATING'S POWER KILLS, would not the world take away my power to stop me from killing?
The world reeled before me. I remember collapsing to the ground. The next thing I remember is coming to on a couch in the nursing station.
The nurse was there, as was Headmaster Middlethorpe, as were three or four of my boys. Standing nearest to me of all was Bo, who as soon as he saw that I had regained consciousness, began to speak to me, in the sort of soothing and solicitous tone that one uses to someone who has been stricken with illness and to whom the speaker wishes to be particularly gentle and solicitous, and yet as he spoke, it dawned on me that he was still on the same tiresome topic of my scoffing at students' names, and which made me realize that he was not making pleasant small talk in order to reassure a convalescent of the stability of the world, and of the fact that he had friends ready to support him in his hour of need. No, he was relentlessly continuing to harp on his resentment — or was it envy? — of my god-given right to ridicule student's names.
What Bo said was, "O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Click, I wonder if you are aware that in some of the students' minds, your name has become associated with the idea that KEATING'S POWER KILLS, and which they take to mean that you use your power as a teacher to kill independent thought?"
"I am astonished to hear you suggest any such thing."
"But nevertheless, the association has been made, and I am afraid even worse associations, as for example that you use your power to actually cause death, KEATING'S POWER KILLS inviting as it does the further association that KEATING'S POWER MURDERS, and so I wonder if you would care to revise your position as to the significance of such associations — that is, the associations between yourself and the power of a teacher to kill independent thought and even to murder?"
"In this particular case," I answered, "such associations are uncalled for, are perverse, are totally without justification or significance."
"And would be best left unrepeated and unalluded to in any way?"
"And what think you of a surname such as Borden, which you have associated with 'burden', or McTeague, which you have associated with 'not in our league', or Jessop, which you have associated with 'ketchup'?"
"I think nothing at all of such surnames, as one man's surname is as good as another's, and I am not in the habit of ranking surnames on any scale, or passing any kind of judgment on them. I had intended my earlier comments to be taken as amicable banter, but I recognize now that in view of the emotional fragility of certain students, that such levity is better avoided, no matter how well intentioned."
"I leave you to return to my studies, O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Click. May you enjoy a speedy and complete recovery."
In retrospect, I pieced together what must have happened. Two labels had been planted in my path, the latter of which had been doctored from KEATING'S POWDER KILLS to KEATING'S POWER KILLS. I had been the victim of a cruel and vicious prank, and it taught me a very important lesson — that the measures needed to create an effective Dead Poets Society needed to be applied more warily. Most importantly, all malevolent and obstructionist students had to be removed from the class so that my teaching could progress without obstruction. Absolute control over Dead Poets Society members necessitated my using certain tools, and humiliating the members of that Society was one such indispensable tool. And it is a principle universally agreed upon that whoever stands in the way of a teacher applying the tools of his trade must be removed. Thank you, Bo, for reminding me of that principle. The fact that this useful tool — jeering at someone's name — can also be used by the forces of evil in anti-social directions, such as undermining a leader's authority by repeating some zany free-association to his name, is no reason for me to stop using the same tool in the cause of improving education.
I thank my lucky stars that there is no one of Bo's rancor and malevolence here among my American boys, who are models not just of cooperation, but of submission. It is especially in comparison to the nasty Bo that Todd Anderson shines as the apple of my eye, and of every teacher's eye were he placed in every classroom, for it is the Todd Andersons of this world who swallow in dutiful silence the daily doses of humiliation that teachers dole out to them, and who make no attempt to avenge themselves by means of flippant and irrelevant retorts the way that the Bo rascals of this world do, and of course who never venture to practical jokes of hideous cruelty such as the KEATING'S POWER KILLS campaign.
FIRST MEETING, STEP 4: ESTABLISH A LEGITIMIZING INCANTATION
And finally the last of my four great accomplishments during our very fist class of the year was establishing a legitimizing incantation, at least that's what Bo had earlier called it at the Chester School in London, and I liked his expression, and have been using it ever since, in my private thoughts, I mean — "legitimizing incantation". That's what Carpe Diem is, and of course that's what Seize The Day is as well.
And what a wonderful technique it is for tightening control over a group! First, put the fear of death into the students. Best would have been to take them to a graveyard, dig up a corpse, say about a week old, make them examine it closely, expect that several of them will start vomiting at the smell, then tell them that that was going to be them in just a few short years. Very effective, especially if a worm could actually be seen eating out an eyeball, say. But can't really pull this off. It's illegal. And worms have a hard time getting into modern coffins. So instead I show them photos of boys who had once been in their shoes, students in Welton Academy in the distant past, and so who today are probably all lying in their coffins.
And then tell my boys that they should seek compensation for this death that awaits them — the compensation of Seizing The Day. In other words, since life is going to be brief, pack as much into it as possible.
And my little test of passivity, how well that went too! It is like having a meat thermometer in a roast which tells you when it's done — that's what my test of passivity is like, and it tells me whether the students have reached the desired state of passivity yet or not, have stopped thinking, have handed their brains over to me, or in other words have put me in absolute control of their intellects and their emotions. The test is to make a statement which is obviously false, and to see how much protest it triggers. I did make such a statement, and I did get not a peep of protest, and so I knew I had put my boys into a state of passivity so total that it pretty much qualified as a hypnagogic trance, which sounds like a bad thing until you learn to recognize that it is the attainment of Samadhi, which is Union with the Divine, and what can be better than Union with the Divine?
My test statement was that the students in the old photographs on display in the foyer had the "same haircuts" as themselves, than which nothing could be more obviously false, as the most popular cut in the old photographs had a part right down the middle of the head which strikes today's boys as peculiar or comical or even absurd.
I was delighted as well with the success of my doggie-level delivery which I had learned in London from my Transcendental Therapist and Eastern-Mysticism Guru, Maharishi Menshi Yogi, whose teaching focusses on the importance of the altitude above ground from which a communication is delivered, there being four significant heights — worm, dog, man, and eagle. If a teacher speaks with his mouth at, or close to, the altitude which is optimal for the material being taught, then the room reverberates in sympathy with that material, and as a result the students grasp every idea instantaneously, and the idea is stored securely in memory from which it cannot fade or be dislodged, and, in short, learning proceeds optimally. However, if the idea is delivered from the wrong level, sympathetic vibration is largely absent, and as a result comprehension is muddled, memory is improperly stocked, education turns to chaos.
The optimal level, of course, is one wave length from the ground, the wave length being very small for some subjects, as for example the properties of metals in chemistry which definitely can be explained clearly only with the teacher's mouth almost in contact with the ground, which is to say, at worm level; and large for other subjects, as for example Marxian economics which benefits from eagle-level exposition, which can be adequately approximated in a classroom by the teacher standing up on his desk. I recommended to both the chemistry master at Chester and the history master that they at least put Maharishi Menshi Yogi's altitude-of-delivery doctrine to a test in their lecturing, but they refused peremptorily, demonstrating that their teaching methodology was dictated by tradition rather than by the more modern criterion of experimental verification.
As my early pilot studies in London proved, establishing a legitimizing incantation is best done from doggie level, and so it became necessary for me in the Welton Academy foyer to squat somewhat, and also bend over, which a few students found disconcerting for the reason, perhaps, that what seemed like doggie-level delivery to a crouching speaker seemed like crotch-level-delivery to his standing audience. For example, when I was behind Richard Cameron — he of the flaming red hair done up in an ostentatious brush cut — I dipped particularly low, and elicited from him a frown of severe disapproval, as if I were a dog goosing him with its nose. But I think all the other students recognized and appreciated the increased clarity with which doggie-level delivery was able to transport the Carpe Diem message from my brain to theirs. In many situations, by the way, the speaker can avoid having his doggie-level delivery give the impression of audience-crotch-level delivery by having his audience crouch down along with him, or at least sit, but which remedies in the instant case were unavailable as there were no chairs in the foyer, and in any case the boys needed to stand erect in order to properly view the photographs in the display cases.
My great relief at the effortless addition, with the cooperation of my American boys, of Carpe Diem to my arsenal of available thought-control weapons stands in sharp contrast to the obstacles I had earlier encountered in my London pilot studies because of the lack of cooperation of my London boys, especially that Bodan Kozak. When I tried to deliver pretty much the same Carpe Diem message in London, all hell broke loose. Bodan approached me not long after class saying that he had been reading a book called Jörn Uhl, in English translation from German, and English not being his first language, a passage from which confused him, and he wondered if he could read it to me and have me clarify its relation to my Carpe Diem doctrine. "Doctrine" was his word, which I am not sure I liked, as it could have been intended respectfully as "unimpeachable truth" or disrespectfully, as "benighted dogma". Nevertheless, I agreed, and we found a bench out on the lawn, where I had at first wanted to skim the Jörn Uhl passage with my own eyes, and thus all the faster dispose of the matter, but because he anticipated this, and feared that my superficial reading would leave me unacquainted with the details and nuances of the passage, wanted me particularly to attend to every word, and so insisted on reading it aloud to me, which he did well, pronouncing carefully and distinctly, and wherever the drift was intricate or hard to follow, reading with appropriate intonation and pauses which laid bare the structure of the sentence, and clarified its meaning, and which with rushed or careless reading would have been lost. As I listened to him, I was transported into the scene described, and watched it as if it was taking place before me.
On one farm the wife herself put the brown horses into the cart, and put on the silver-mounted harness, and drove into town and asked the magistrates for a declaration of her husband's incapacity. She spread out before them the documents which she had brought with her, and showed how much of her own marriage dowry he had squandered. She placed the little lad she had with her on the green table, drew down his trousers, and showed the bruises her drunken husband had made, and she bared her full, white bosom and showed the marks of his fingers, and demanded that she should be made administrator of the property.
The magistrate was a young man, and though he had stood by many a woman's side, he had never yet stood face to face with one. He made a motion toward the bell, and said it wasn't such an easy matter, according to the law, to do what she wanted; and then he began to recount the various steps it would be necessary to take. They were many and intricate.
Then she began to say hard things about the law of her native land, maintaining that it was as clumsy as an old cow, and that it was as much a woman-hater as a hardened old bachelor. Her words rang right through the office into the corridor. And at last she said there was, thank God, another sort of justice, which she would in future put into application. And she raised her hand threateningly to illustrate her meaning. She would find a way out of her distress without magistrates and law-courts — a cheaper way, too, faith. But if it should happen that her husband should some fine day find his way hither to complain of her, then they'd better send him back about his business; else she'd give him such a drubbing that he wouldn't be able to stir a step for a fortnight.
In this way did this wretched woman speak, made desperate by her long years of misery, and then drove unmolested home again. Many a time afterward folks saw her driving through the village, always with two smart horses. She had sold the silver-mounted harness next day; her horses pull in good strong hempen trappings up to the present day, and she looks neither to left nor right. She has become a hard woman. The farm-servants and produce-dealers are afraid of her; her children have turned out well — the boys a little shy, and the girls strong-willed women. Her husband shuffled out of life one day after sneaking along the walls of his own house for many a year. He lies buried in a neglected grave, near that of one of his workmen, old Peter Back, which is always kept fresh and neat. It is said that the wife of one of his sons once quietly tidied up the farmer's grave, but the widow found it out, and got seeds of stinging nettles from a weed plot near, and sowed them on it. And what made this more remarkable was the story that older folk of the village told how, long ago on her wedding-day, she had not been able to contain herself for happiness, and how, after their mutual "Yes" had been exchanged, she had thrown her arms around her young husband's neck, laughing and weeping at the same time, without caring a jot for the people who were there. Out of love so warm there had come such bitter hate.
"Well," said Bo, "my first question is whether this wife, when she approaches the magistrate and presents reasons why she should be given administration of the family property, is she not taking decisive and courageous action to staunch the hemorrhaging of the family estate, and to emancipate herself from the brutal oppression of her husband?"
"Maybe so," I answered guardedly, not knowing what he was getting at, but sensing that he was leading me into a trap for purposes of humiliation.
"Then might not she be said to be Seizing the Day?"
"Well, and suppose that she is?"
"And at the end of the passage I just read, which describes her on her wedding day having been unable to contain herself for happiness, and throwing her arms around her young husband's neck, laughing and weeping at the same time — would her marrying with such joy not be an example of Gathering Rosebuds While Ye May?"
"And Seizing the Day at the same time?"
"The two are almost synonymous."
"Well," said Bodan, "what confuses me is that her Gathering Rosebuds on her wedding day seems to have been a tragic mistake which she had done better to avoid, whereas your presentation to the class earlier today seemed to assume that Gathering Rosebuds was always desirable and beneficial. And the same, of course, goes for Seizing The Day — sometimes it brings good, and sometimes it brings harm; sometimes Seizing The Day means uniting out of love, and sometimes it means separating out of hate. And so the Gather-Ye-Rosebuds poem, read in full," he said opening his blue book on page 542 and handing it to me, "seems to warn virgins to marry as quickly as they can so as to avoid spinsterhood gives only half the warning that young people need to be given."
Robert Herrick. 1591–1674|
To the Virgins, to make much of Time
GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he's to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may for ever tarry.
"The other half of the warning that the young need to be given is that they should take time to find a worthy spouse, because relying on only the emotion of the moment may result in a ruined life. The other half of the warning can be condensed into six words: 'Marry in haste, repent at leisure' — six words that in nine cases out of ten give better advice for the young than the more numerous words of Gather Ye Rosebuds. In other words, perhaps it is the case that over-haste produces many times the pain of over-caution. Perhaps while needing to be warned of the danger of tarrying, youth needs more often to be warned of the danger of rushing."
Bo closed the Jörn Uhl book, and placed it on the bench between us, saying "allow me to present this book to you as a gift. It teaches a number of worthy morals." Which is what makes it possible for me to reproduce Bo's reading exactly today, especially given that Welton has just purchased its first Xerox machine.
But Bo was not finished. "And so if the wife can Seize The Day by casting off her husband after many years of marriage, would she not also have been able to Seize The Day by casting him off at the altar, just before they were married? And could she not also have Seized The Day — assuming she had been armed with skill in reading character and foreseeing the future — an hour after meeting him, by casting him off even as early as that?"
"Well, yes," I had to admit. Bo was cunningly leading me into admissions that I could see were eroding my foundations, and yet each of which was too obviously true to deny.
"But if marrying the idiot because you love him is Seizing The Day, and if dumping the idiot because you hate him is also Seizing The Day, and if dumping him when you love him because you can foresee that you will grow to hate him is also Seizing The Day, then no matter what the wife does, and no matter when she does it, it can be called Seizing The Day. In other words, Seizing The Day has no meaning, it can be applied to any and all actions, it does not steer us in any particular direction, and so we may call it not a description of only some of the things that may be happening, but rather an incantation which bestows a blessing on whatever is happening, or in other words we can call it a legitimizing incantation whose purpose is to wash away guilt from every action to which it happens to be affixed."
"I commend you for an insightful analysis," I answered, "but you do not take into account that Seizing The Day encourages action as opposed to remaining in a state of passivity," to which Bo replied instantaneously, as if he had dealt with this argument many times before, and had his answer ready, "which seems to make sense if we think of a choice as one between acting or not acting, and which we might call Doing A or Not Doing A. However, the same choice can be described differently, which is to say as Doing A or Doing B. A girl being able to Marry A or Not Marry A can be described instead as the girl being able to Marry A or Start Dating B. No matter what we do, we do something. In poker, we are faced with the option of raising a bet or not, but which can be re-phrased as raising or checking, as either seizing the opportunity to raise, or seizing the opportunity to check. Whether in poker or in life, refusing to take an action can always be depicted as taking some alternative action, and that alternative action can lead to higher winnings either on the poker table or in life."
I sat silently. Bo was too much for me. Too much nattering, which I did not think worth following. I had retreated into a state of Samadhi. Why need I struggle to follow the nattering of this teenager when I was United With The Divine? Bo could have used some of the same, seemed to me — some of the same Uniting With The Divine — in order to cool his fevered brain.
"And does not my 'insightful analysis' as you call it call for some qualification to be imparted to the class?" continued Bo, relentlessly.
The whippersnapper was becoming intolerable! I gave him my coldest stare. He, in turn, abruptly took his leave, as if not so satisfied with my attitude that he could exchange pleasantries, and yet not so dissatisfied as to justify pressing his argument beyond what he already had. Of course, I had no intention of presenting my class with anything like a retraction of my Carpe Diem directive, because no leader is able to lead without at least one legitimizing incantation. No matter what any follower is commanded to do, a legitimizing incantation gives leadership the power to reassure that follower of the rectitude of his obedience. For the incantation to work, however, it is essential that the follower be kept from recognizing that he is free to apply that same incantation to whatever other action he chooses, even the action of disobeying a command, and it is essential that the follower resign himself to allowing his commander to supply fresh definitions of the legitimizing incantation as they are needed. The military commander who announces that disobedience in battle will be regarded as cowardice does not want his soldiers to recognize even while he speaks that "Many would be cowards if they had courage enough" — meaning that many would run from battle if they only had enough courage to run from battle, enough courage to face the disapproval of the warmongers who were ordering them into battle. A military leader will lose his power to command once his soldiers beginning telling each other that disobeying his orders would be heroic.
As I want my students to love poetry, I define reading poetry as Seizing The Day; if I had wanted them to love engineering, then it would be studying engineering that I would define as Seizing The Day. It's simple, but it works. And as I also wanted them to become sexually promiscuous, I called sexual promiscuity — which I euphemistically referred to as Gathering Rosebuds — Seizing The Day; had I wanted them to exercise discretion in sex, to establish enduring love and commitment to a single carefully-selected and worthy mate, then I would have defined that as Seizing The Day.
Without the power to control the thoughts and emotions of my students with the help of some legitimizing incantation, my influence over them would be weakened, and my plans for them would stand in danger of failing. The only effect of Bo's meddling in my affairs was to motivate me to get him kicked out of my class, and expelled from the entire school if possible. Yes, getting Bo kicked out of Chester was the answer. The Chester School was not big enough for both of us. One of us was going to have to go, and it wasn't going to be me. And a corollary of my conclusion was that in any future attempt to establish a Dead Poets Society, among my first steps must be the identification and removal of troublemakers like Bo.
That the differences between me and Bo had not in fact been resolved soon became evident in the case of Howard Humes, whose initial interest at the Chester School had centered on poetry, but who began to view poetry as a frivolous playing with words where the world's needs could be better served with action, and who with the encouragement of his teachers of science and mathematics had begun to dream of becoming a hydraulic engineer, to which I, of course, responded with incredulity and disapproval. All he would be concerning himself with for the rest of his professional life would be moving water from one place to another. Being a glorified plumber did not promise to give either spiritual or intellectual gratification, I warned him. He spoke of bringing potable water to millions who drank out of puddles, of irrigating parched fields, of offering ships shortcuts through canals and locks, of bringing electricity to homes presently lighted only by candles. He had hanging in his dormitory room not the healthy pictures of Playboy Playmate foldouts, but neurotic photographs of Roman aqueducts, of the Panama Canal, of the Hoover Dam. He read the unabridged Les Miserables because he wanted full detail on the sewers of Paris in 1832, at which I sneered "Nobody reads the unabridged Les Miserables, or at least if they pretend to, they really skip those tiresome chapters on nothing but the history of the sewers of Paris, which chapters do not advance the plot in the least, but merely show off what Victor Hugo hopes will be admired as his meticulous scholarship and his prodigious memory." I warned Howard Humes that if he persisted in his folly, he should expect to discover, when he came to die, that he had not lived, that he should, rather, follow the Latin injunction Carpe Diem, Seize The Day, should give expression to joy and love, explore the mysteries of Bacchus through wine, music, and ecstatic dance, free his soul from anxiety and toil.
I was beginning to make headway toward preventing this erring student from throwing away his life on glorified plumbing projects, when Bodan learned of my efforts, and impudently began to intervene, passing along to the would-be-plumber his propaganda identifying Carpe Diem as a "legitimizing incantation", and said further, both to myself and to the would-be plumber, Howard Humes, that Seizing The Day could as well be applied — could better be applied — to what Humes had spontaneously been doing — choosing to abandon poetry in favor of hydraulic engineering because hydraulic engineering would save lives and reduce suffering and relieve hunger. Putting a cup of water into the hands of a man dying of thirst, Bo told the would-be plumber, was more beautiful than any poem ever written, and more gratifying than any drunken debauchery. Give mankind what it urgently cries out for, and you earn mankind's gratitude and respect. Mankind does not urgently cry out for more poetry, it hasn't even seen fit to read the tiniest fraction of the poetry already written. Read a poem to a man dying of hunger or thirst or cholera, and you earn his contempt.
Oh, and that bunkum of arriving at the end of your life and finding you have not lived! Of course the man we are picturing on his death bed saying this has in fact lived, as every man does live until he dies. How can he arrive at the end of his life if there has been no life? What the dying speaker means by "I have not lived" is "I have not had as much fun as I had hoped". But this is not the discovery of a truth, it is an expression of disappointment. What the speaker of these words really means is that at the end of his life he feels he could have had more fun, which sense of disappointment any man might feel at the end of any life. Such disappointment is equally likely to arise in the breast of the would-be-poet who becomes an engineer instead, but misses the fun of having been a poet; as in the breast of the would-be engineer who becomes a poet instead, but misses the fun of having been an engineer. We can, if we wish, imagine either one of them feeling on his death bed that he has not had as much fun as he had hoped he would, and expressing this regret in the hyperbolic words that he had discovered that he had not lived. But only children are impressed by such word games.
And so from all these experiences at the Chester School in London, I learned the importance of ridding a classroom of any devils who appeared in the guise of students, and these learning experiences were excellent preparation for my present teaching at the Welton Academy in Vermont, and so thorough had been my preparation that in my very first class at Welton, I accomplished perfectly what in London I was still struggling to accomplish very imperfectly after three months. With my American boys at Welton, then, after only a single meeting, my students have learned four important things, a level of accomplishment which I think may be unequalled in the annals of education.
(1) They have learned to rely on mental telepathy as their chief mode of communication.
(2) They have learned to submit to my absolute control under the title of O-Captain-My-Captain.
(3) They have acceded to their names being ridiculed, and to being generally abused, in the interests of further strengthening my power of command.
(4) They have accepted Carpe Diem as their chief legitimizing incantation, and of course have left the definition of what does or does not constitute Seizing The Day entirely in my hands.
In view of which first-day accomplishments, I am forced to conclude that education at Welton Academy, at least in my own classroom, is proceeding with the highest imaginable efficiency, and that at least my students can reasonably look forward to a profitable and gratifying academic year.
BO AND I ARE OVERWHELMED BY THE STENCH OF CORRUPTION
Although on almost every question that came up at the Chester School in London, Bo and I took opposite sides, there is one question on which we agreed, and that was that Chester was totally corrupt, and which my memory of my student days at the Welton Academy in Vermont told me had been true of Welton as well.
I was reminded of this corruption upon my return to Welton by the volume of homework that I saw being assigned, and by that homework contributing substantially toward the final grade.
As a general rule, the more distant is the due date, the better able is a student to squeeze the homework into his schedule; nevertheless, as I walk past the Chemistry lab door, I hear "The first 20 questions at the end of chapter one are due tomorrow", which strikes me as particularly unfair in the earlest days of the academic year when students have a pile of administrative and settling-in chores to attend to and their lives are in confusion.
When the Chemistry teacher demands 20 questions be answered by tomorrow, what is he really saying except, "The task I'm assigning you is more than you have time for, and as cheating is ridiculously easy, and no one will ever catch you, and no one will even try to catch you, then please go ahead and do the only sensible thing that any rational person would do — cheat!" Charlie Dalton, tie loosened in disrespect as always, was already craning over his shoulder in the direction of Richard Cameron, as if seeking reassurance in this predicament.
And does not every last soul at Welton know the many ways in which this cheating takes place? Just think about it. The school does not buy a whole new set of revised textbooks every year. Chances are that same textbook was used the year before, and the year before that as well, and likely going back many years. And so it follows that hundreds of Welton students have already answered those same twenty questions. To lay it out in detail, if this were a Grade 10 textbook, then all the Grade 11 students on campus will have answered those questions a year before, and all the Grade 12 students on campus will have answered them two years before, and Welton graduates who are in first-year university will have answered them three years before, and so on. Get it? It's almost a certainty that these advanced students will have recognized the usefulness of their answers to future students, and will have made copies, to be doled out for a small fee, or else to particular friends or relatives as a favor. And the copies that are most likely to be saved and passed down are ones that earned a high grade — in other words, the A+ versions. And with the advent of the Xerox machine, the labor of making copies has been tremendously reduced.
Some avenues of transmission are almost inevitable and unstoppable. For example, Todd Anderson's older brother, Jeffrey, had been a star student at Welton (as I was reminded by overhearing Headmaster Nolan telling Todd that he had some big shoes to fill), and what could be more big-brotherly than Jeffrey passing along all his work, a lot of it of A+ quality, to his kid brother, not merely to boost his grades, but to boost also his popularity, which might otherwise be low because of Todd's pathological remoteness, of which I glimpsed evidence when Todd kept his back turned, and said next to nothing, to fellow students trying to befriend him (among whom was Charlie Dalton lying on a bed with his shoes up on the bed — Sandy at the Bar and Grill in London wouldn't have liked that, I reflected).
And there are countless other circumstances by means of which students gain access to materials that they are able to share. Neil Perry, for example, has just taken Chemistry in summer school, to get ahead. I asked Neil about that summer course, and he told me that although it was conducted not at Welton but at a school close to where his parents live, it relied on the same textbook as the one being used at Welton. In other words, Neil has just completed the very same Chemistry course that his friends are about to embark on, and so will have already completed all the homework and all the labs, and will in particular already have in his possession the answers to the twenty questions that his friends are going to have to hand in the day after they are assigned. What is Neil Perry likely to do when his friends complain to him of the pressure they are under, of the insufficient time available for them to complete their homework, except to hand over his answers?
But in the Welton homework assignments, there is an even more destructive mechanism at work. Note that the Welton students have as one of their foremost goals, in their first hours after arriving at Welton, the formation of study groups. Even Charlie Dalton, he of the loose tie.
And immediately evident once the students do sit down to work together is their large differences in accomplishment, such that the top student in a group immediately comes up with the answers while the bottom students sit stunned, failing even to comprehend the questions.
And what is the result of this inevitable and ubiquitous disparity? It is that the top student in a study group dominates the group, takes command, and demoralizes everybody else. The bottom students are shown how far they are behind the top student, they view the difference as inherent and immutable, and as a result their interest in the subject plummets, they in fact acquire an aversion to it, and they withdraw from any form of competition in it. And the more they hate it, the more they avoid it, and so the poorer they become at it, and so the more they hate it, and so the more they avoid it, and so on, trapped in an academic death spiral. They imagine that becoming as good as the top student is an utter impossibility, and that merely trying to become almost as good would require more time than they can spare and more pain than they can endure, with the ultimate result that they want only to get through this course without regard to how little they learn, and using any means available, among which copying homework is one.
I had been daily reminded of this phenomenon while I was myself a student at Welton, and upon my return to Welton I see that the tradition has continued unbroken. Current instances of homework piggy-backing have come to my attention, as for example Stephen Meeks "helping" loose-tie Charlie Dalton in Latin, English, and Trigonometry, and Richard Cameron "helping" Charlie Dalton and Neil Perry in Trigonometry. From the look of frustration and distaste that I have seen crossing Charlie Dalton's face as he struggles with Trig while Richard Cameron hovers nearby explaining away, I am strengthened in my long-held conviction that the effects of group collaboration are destructive to all but the top student in every subject who rules the roost.
But I have to admit that the above picture of students working together with destructive effects is a worst-case scenario, and thankfully rare. What more typically happens is not nearly that bad. What typically happens is that a student simply copies the homework from one sheet of paper to his own. This is faster than first struggling to get the answers himself, and because he performs the task alone, he avoids the demoralization that comes from having someone repeatedly demonstrate that he is better at doing something than you will ever be.
But won't the homework piggy-backers come to grief when exams roll around, as exams ultimately must? Not to worry! The exams are almost identical from one year to the next, and sometimes absolutely identical, for which reason students are not allowed to keep copies, but inevitably students do obtain copies, and either these will be shared with optimal solutions stapled to the back, or else the top student in the study group will provide optimal solutions, and so that most students have only to memorize the steps in the supplied solutions to receive good grades. Degree of success depends little on mastering the subject matter, and much on belonging to the best study groups. For example, a Chemistry study group to which Todd Anderson brings the exams with answers given him by his celebrity brother, Jeffrey, and to which Neil Perry also brings his materials from the summer-school Chemistry that he just completed, might be able to guarantee good grades even to group members who are ignoramuses in Chemistry. Of course memorizing the steps in the answers to all the problems on an exam will still take a few hours of work, and will be accomplished by different students to varying degrees, and so which will guarantee a range of grades, but that work will be only a small fraction of the work that would be required to get the same grade by just studying the entire Chemistry course without knowing what specific questions will be asked, and thus preparing to answer all imaginable questions.
And, so, yes! What that Chemistry teacher is doing with his twenty questions due tomorrow is what all teachers do — locking their students firmly into the habit of cheating, starting right from day one. He is teaching them to take credit for work done by another. Teaching them to spend time pretending to study, when they are only copying. Teaching them that marks are poor reflections of achievement. Teaching them to fear, and thus to detest, learning. But there is an upside. The upside is that students are being taught the very useful lesson that they live in a world where chicanery offers the quickest road to success.
And so this was the one thing that Bo and I came to agree on in our days together at the Chester School in London. Whenever we talked together of the profound corruption and degradation of the Chester School, of all schools for that matter, I felt the thrill of being a member of a revolutionary conspiracy. I felt that we had bonded, had formed a Society of Two, a society small but powerful — and yet our agreement was incomplete. We differed as to how this corruption was to be addressed. Bo was convinced that schools could be redeemed. I was convinced that they needed to be destroyed.
SECOND MEETING, STEP 1: INAUGURATE O-CAPTAIN-MY-CAPTAIN'S PREROGATIVE TO COMMAND BOOK BURNING
Book burning! One of the most valuable tools of thought control, and so much fun as well!
Of course, in addition to collecting in my scrapbook photographs of children giving the Roman salute, I also collect pictures of book-burning. Both sorts of pictures touch me in the same way, by capturing expressions of unwavering loyalty to the group, and unquestioning trust in its leadership.
At one point I proudly showed my scrapbook to Headmaster Middlethorpe at the Chester School, and he surprised me by the tenacity with which his associations brought him repeatedly to Hitler. Hitler! Hitler! Hitler! That's all he ever talks about. The war has indeed scarred him, and twisted his thinking as well.
I try to bring him to reason. When the Allies won the war, I remind him, they went on a rampage of systematic destruction too — of all Nazi literature and art. Reason forces us to conclude — does it not? — that the mere destruction of literature or art is not automatically bad, it is sometimes good and sometimes bad. When good books are burned by evil men, of course that is bad, but when bad books are burned by good men, why of course that is good. Everybody knows that, everybody agrees with that. Hitler did not invent book-burning, it has been an integral part of history both before him and after. Therefore, to speak of book-burning as always bad and necessarily Hitlerian is irrational. I explain all this slowly and carefully — and repeatedly — to Headmaster Middlethorpe, but he refuses to be swayed. Not everybody is open to reason. My boys haven't yet reached the age of reason, and Headmaster Middlethorpe has already passed it, if he ever entered into it at all.
And from that same scrapbook, the one that so upset Headmaster Middlethorpe, I borrow a few photos to tape into my diary.
First, from the night of 10 May 1933 during which students at 34 universities across Germany burned some 25,000 books decreed to be "un-German", the largest such event being the gathering of some 40,000 people in the Opernplatz in Berlin who were addressed by Joseph Goebbels: "And thus you do well at this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past." Inspiring words that I will be sure to repeat during that book burning on the beach that I plan for my boys next spring.
Whereas the above photo makes it look like German book-burning was an adults-only affair, in fact the bulk of the work was conducted by youths, and it is just such youthful demonstrations of loyalty and obedience as these that particularly touch my heart.
And on the right can be seen that book-burning is not a uniquely German gift, but that American youth is endowed with it as well, the event being University of Alabama students burning desegregation literature in 1956. And yet what American educator will fail to be disappointed by the piddling volume of material that the Alabamians can be seen to be burning! Just compare the three photos that I've taped here and tell me that the American boys don't have a long way to go before they catch up with their German counterparts. Embarrassing that in fact not a single book has been thrown into the Alabama flames, only "literature". Oh, well, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and I am sent here to show that American boys are just as capable of not only taking that first step, but also of trekking on to the journey's end.
But, practically speaking, smoke from burning even a single book in a classroom would surely come, or be brought, to the attention of our beloved Headmaster Nolan, and who I expect would disapprove, which makes it necessary for our first foray toward book burning to be limited to ripping out and tearing to pieces a single page from our poetry textbooks. And although the ultimate goal is students burning on command, without asking for explanation or justification, their very first experience needed to be supported by some excuse, however lame and unconvincing. And on top of that, I expected that the very first introduction to book destruction would also need to be supplemented by two of the trustiest tools of crowd control — shouting and repetition, both of which I did a lot of to get them to begin casting off the shackles of their bourgeois compulsion to respect property belonging to others. Believe me, this first step was the hard part, and now that they have taken that first step, and seen that no punishment follows, they will continue climbing the ladder of increasing destruction with alacrity and enthusiasm. In fact, when I saw that my boys were finally beginning to respond, I did venture to lead them just a tad farther than I had originally thought would be possible on a first foray — I commanded that they go beyond ripping out just that single page from their poetry books, the page that I had told them was offensive, all the way to ripping out the entire multi-page introduction, where I had said nothing about the entire introduction being offensive — and they did it! The first page they ripped out for a reason given, even though insufficient, but the entire introduction they ripped out for the sheer joy of vandalism. Am I a great teacher, or what?
And how agreeable are my experiences with my American students here in the Welton Academy in comparison to the nightmare that awaited me at every turn at the Chester School in London. After I had gotten my London students to tear out their Pritchard page, up jumps Bo and announces to the class, "And while we are at it, let's rip out the Gather-Ye-Rosebuds page as well — for the very good reason that it is subversive, inviting the young to view gathering rosebuds as the highest goal in life, when in reality what it accomplishes is distraction from serious study, the spread of venereal disease, illegitimate childbirth, miserable marriages, and alcoholism and drug abuse — exactly the sorts of things that the Kremlin wishes upon the West, and so it is our duty to protect ourselves, and to protect our nation, by ripping that Gather-Ye-Rosebuds page out of the book, and tearing it to pieces. So now immediately turn to page 542, and rip out that page! Have no fear, for Mr Keating has shown us the correct path, the path of righteousness and the path of action, and we must not fear to follow in his footsteps, to imitate what he has set out for our imitation. He taught us that when we see evil, it is our duty to destroy it without hesitation, without being swallowed up in the quicksand of delay, and so rip that page up right now!" And so Bo is now yelling just as I had been a few minutes before.
And I was so bowled over by what was happening, and so at a loss for words, that before I had a chance to interpose, half the students had already ripped out that Gather-Ye-Rosebuds page, and there seemed to be no point in stopping the other half, and if I did try to stop anybody now, I was afraid of seeming to lack the courage of my own convictions, and to be trying to put back into the bottle the genie that I had myself released, and so I said nothing, and let the rampage continue, and only watched as Bo expertly paraded the wastepaper basket up and down the aisles, and each student unhesitatingly tossed his Gather-Ye-Rosebuds page in, although when Bo arrived at the very last student, O'Reilly, and proffered the wastebasket to him, O'Reilly pressed the page to his chest and said, "Request permission to retain copy for future study of decadence of Western literature," to which Bo instantly shouted at him, "Verboten!" and pushed the basket towards O'Reilly's face, whereupon O'Reilly instantly tossed the page into the basket, and in a shrill voice shouted Heil-Führer-Mein-Führer and then performed the salute-click, but toward not me but Bo! This was not good! A boy cannot be loyal to two Führers, and O'Reilly already had me.
And so, as the students filed out after class, I pulled Bo aside and hissed at him, "You weren't authorized to do that!", to which he replied, "I thought I was doing the right thing by following your example, O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Click, which is to act quickly and decisively to destroy evil wherever I happened to encounter it. As I saw that you sought no authorization for your destruction of the Pritchard pages, either authorization from the school in its capacity of owning all those textbooks that you were causing to be damaged, or authorization from the school in its capacity of being your employer that empowers you to perform certain actions and that forbids you to perform other actions, I took you to be teaching us that no authorization needed to be sought, which is why I did not seek any".
"What I wanted to teach you," I explained in exasperation, "was to destroy evil whenever I informed you of its presence, and whenever I ordered you to destroy it, but not otherwise".
"I beg your pardon, O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Click, I misunderstood your teaching. So, then, it would have been proper for me to request authorization from you before calling for the tearing out of the Gather-Ye-Rosebuds page?"
"I'm afraid that you continue to misunderstand me," I answered, "as it would not have been at all proper for you to ask me for any such authorization. Students have no authority to initiate destruction, and they have not even the authority to request authorization to initiate destruction, and they have not even the authority to suggest to their leader that he initiate any particular act of destruction. The proper role for the student is to wait patiently for the leader to identify and command the destruction of manifestations of evil. The students role, and his joy, is to be the recipient of the information that the leader has identified an eruption of evil, and to become the instrument of the destruction of that evil if the leader commands it."
"I regret to inform you, O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Click, that I may not be alone in having misconstrued your intent, and that students other than myself may have taken your example to be an open invitation to destroy evil on their own initiative, rapidly and totally just as soon as they encounter it, as they saw you doing, and without regard to issues such as the ownership of the property destroyed, or the loss to the owner resulting from that destruction, and I fear further that such imitation of your example may be taking place right now as we speak, for the simple reason that evil is everywhere, and that the more evil that we eradicate, the more sensitized do our eyes become to detecting whatever evil remains, and that we are the most likely to act spontaneously to destroy evil the more recent has been our last act of destruction."
And even as Bo spoke these words, we heard the sound of breaking glass coming through the open doors of the classroom, and when we ran out into the hall, we could see in the foyer at the end of the hall that one of the glass display cases had been shattered, and that one of the photographs inside that display case was ablaze.
BO EXPLAINS THE NATURE OF SCIENTIFIC THEORY
And for several days, Chester School was awash in vandalism, glass windows and display cases smashed, graffiti on walls, fires set in the library, in the midst of which Bo speaks to me after class, arguing that the Pritchard page should not have been torn out because it presented a scientific theory, and as science had proven its immeasurable worth to mankind, its every manifestation should be encouraged. That Pritchard's theory was defective should have been the occasion of explaining its defects to students, and thus of teaching them to distinguish good theories from bad ones, and not the occasion of destruction. There is no better way to learn to identify bad theories than to examine bad ones and to have it explained why they are bad. For that reason, Bo at first recommended that we make Xeroxes of the Pritchard pages from a book that had not been bowdlerized, and tape the Xeroxes into all the books from which Pritchard had been ripped out. Later, unfortunately, Bo agitated for my buying Chester School a new set of books.
I thought all his talk of good and bad theories was nonsense, but let him babble on, myself beginning to withdraw into the state of Samadhi — Union with the Divine. Bo was speaking from notes that he had prepared, and which he ended up leaving behind, and which I now tape into my diary. As I didn't really follow what he was saying, I did not refute him on the spot, though I did wonder aloud how a mere high school student presumed to lecture anyone on the nature of scientific theory, and he replied that it was a topic covered in the Constantinople Curriculum, at which point we were interrupted and our conversation was broken off. I insert here, without further comment, Bo's notes.
A scientific theory often takes the form of a mathematical model, and simple mathematical models of the sort proposed by Pritchard work wonderfully in the simplest-imaginable of situations, as for example distance travelled equalling the speed of travel multiplied by the duration of travel
DISTANCE = SPEED x TIME
or the area of a wall about to be painted equalling the wall's height multiplied by its width
AREA = HEIGHT x WIDTH
Of course just as soon as such simple situations acquire any complexity, so do their accompanying equations, as for example (as everybody will remember from his high-school physics), the distance travelled by a falling body is a function of its initial velocity v0 multiplied by the duration of travel, t, added to one-half the acceleration due to gravity, a, multiplied by t squared
DISTANCE = v0 t + at2 / 2
Or, as a further example of how readily theories acquire complexity, we can estimate the height of a building by measuring the length of the SHADOW it casts, as well as the angle THETA between the ground and a line between the tip of the shadow and the top of the building, with the help of the trigonometric function tan, in the equation
HEIGHT = SHADOW tan THETA
In view of the above, the first thing that might be said about the Pritchard theory is that it is unlikely to be useful because he deals with an extremely complicated question — the GREATNESS of a poem — and yet his mathematical model is so exceedingly simple.
GREATNESS = PERFECTION x IMPORTANCE
However, simplicity in a theory is not a defect, it is a virtue, and so we do not say that the Pritchard theory is defective because it is simple. What we do say is that Pritchard's method of estimating greatness raises the presumption that it will be discovered not to work because GREATNESS seems like an exceedingly complicated quality, and yet the mathematical model proposed for it is exceedingly simple.
One of Pritchard's oversimplifications is likely to be that he takes into account too few variables. For example, along with the variables PERFECTION and IMPORTANCE might need to be considered ORIGINALITY, such that a poem that gets a 10 out of 10 on both PERFECTION and IMPORTANCE, might nevertheless get a 0 on ORIGINALITY because it was largely plagiarized from some earlier poem of high GREATNESS, and it is fitting that a plagiarized poem not be considered great. Similarly, it might be useful to include consideration of LONGEVITY, such that a poem that has been read for a hundred years receives a higher GREATNESS score than one that was written yesterday. And if we can in a matter of minutes imagine four characteristics of a poem that seem relevant to GREATNESS — that is, the four characteristics PERFECTION, IMPORTANCE, ORIGINALITY, and LONGEVITY — then we can expect that after a few days of thinking we would be able to imagine ten or twenty or a hundred variables that might be relevant to GREATNESS, which leads us deep into the realm of mathematics known as multivariate analysis, and so totally out of the realm of ultra-simple theories.
Second, for the GREATNESS calculation to give comparable results, one would need to specify the range of ratings that are possible for both PERFECTION and IMPORTANCE, which Pritchard does not do. However, this shortcoming is easily remedied, as for example I have begun to do above, by permitting each rating to range from 0 to 10, being one possibility, which would then allow Pritchard's GREATNESS score to range from 0 to 100.
Third, is the most serious of all the defects, which is the unreliability of Pritchard's underlying measurements. In the contrasting case of the physics examples above, the methods of measurement are understood by all competent observers, such that all such observers would arrive at measurements which were highly similar to each other, as for example TIME of travel of an automobile or of a falling object, or the HEIGHT of a wall or the LENGTH of a shadow. Such, however, is not the case with Pritchard's PERFECTION and IMPORTANCE ratings, for which no method of measurement is described, and which will probably amount simply to each poetry-evaluator picking numbers off the top of his head. What would be sure to happen if a hundred poem readers rated the PERFECTION of any given poem on a scale from 0 to 10, is that disagreement would be so vast that a few might actually assign a PERFECTION of 0 while a few others might actually assign a PERFECTION of 10, and all the remaining readers would spread themselves all over the remaining 1-to-9 range. The same goes for IMPORTANCE. And even a single person might rate the poem differently at different times, depending upon his mood, say, it seeming to him that PERFECTION was low one day, but high a week later; or feeling that the poem was UNIMPORTANT one day, but after having his mind changed by reading something, or talking to somebody, might decide that the poem is HIGHLY IMPORTANT at some later time. But if wildly different PERFECTION and IMPORTANCE ratings are to be expected from different people, and even from the same person at different times, then the poem can be said to have no single GREATNESS score, but only a lot of different GREATNESS scores, depending on who provides the constituent ratings, and the situation in which he provides them.
Fourth, Pritchard does not justify multiplying PERFECTION by IMPORTANCE. Why not, for example, add them to get the GREATNESS score? On the Pritchard graph, the product of PERFECTION and IMPORTANCE was likened to an area, but the sum of PERFECTION and IMPORTANCE can be likened to the distance of the poem from the origin, travel being restricted to only horizontal or only vertical, as if the traveller was obligated to move on rectangularly-arranged city streets. Or, why not define greatness as the direct, as-the-crow-flies distance of the poem from the origin? To calculate this distance, we rely on the Pythagorean theorem which tells us to square PERFECTION, also square IMPORTANCE, add the two results, then take the square root. Much more complicated, but maybe it would give better results.
And yet, how can we tell which is better — multiplying, or adding, or doing the Pythagorean-theorem thing, or doing still other things that are imaginable? Which is better would have to be established by research showing which GREATNESS score produced the highest correlation with other variables of interest, and which research Pritchard does not seem to do. Pritchard's multiplication of PERFECTION by IMPORTANCE is gratuitous, and introducing gratuitous arithmetic into a theory is not the path to formulating a good theory.
And as a final alternative, why combine the two ratings at all? Why not let GREATNESS be defined by two separate numbers, PERFECTION and IMPORTANCE? We already do that sort of thing all the time. For example, we specify the LOCATION of a city by its LATITUDE and its LONGITUDE. Nothing could be more counter-productive than multiplying LATITUDE times LONGITUDE to get a single number specifying LOCATION. Or imagine how useless it would be to look up the LOCATION of a city in an atlas, and have that LOCATION specified by a single number which was the sum of LATITUDE plus LONGITUDE. Sometimes, it's best not to combine numbers, but rather to present them both uncombined, an alternative of which Pritchard seems unaware. And our consideration of geographical LOCATION allows us further to note how the number of relevant variables is often capable of being expanded, as in this case by adding ALTITUDE above sea level to LATITUDE and LONGITUDE, and while incidentally noting that following the inclusion of ALTITUDE, any multiplication or addition or whatever of the three variables would continue to be highly damaging to the concept of LOCATION.
So, yes, Pritchard is naive, but in ripping Pritchard out of the poetry book, you, Mr Keating, have been worse than naive, you have been barbarian. The proper reaction to Pritchard is to explain to students the foolishness of his attempt at scientific theorizing, while at the same time acknowledging that non-foolish attempts are both possible and desirable, and furthermore, that if researchers make such attempts, whether they are wise or foolish, these attempts lie in an entirely different realm from the enjoyment of a poem or from the appreciation of its message, such that no conflict should spring up between the two. Physicists measure sunsets with scientific instruments, artists paint them, photographers photograph them, lovers gaze at them for enjoyment. But the physicist is not justified in slashing the canvas of the painter, the painter is not justified in ripping up the print of the photographer, the photographer is not justified in barring lovers from traversing his landscape, and the lovers are not justified in burning the publication of the physicist. Rather, they should all practice tolerance, and learn that if they are displeased with what somebody operating in a different sphere is doing, they are free to walk away to where they cannot see it. The idea that the reader of poetry has a right to interfere with someone else's statistical analysis of poetry is totalitarian, and totalitarian thinking is not to be encouraged, and most certainly is not to be encouraged in students by teachers.
It is not enough to rely solely on gut feeling that Pritchard is foolish, because that gut feeling may be wrong. You can only be sure that Pritchard is foolish by understanding exactly where he falls short. When you call the Pritchard theory "excrement" you describe your own emotion, but you do not pinpoint any defect in the theory. Your criticizing Pritchard by saying "We're not laying pipe. We're talking about poetry" again fails to describe any defect in the theory, it is just making a joke, a joke which makes no sense — what does laying pipe have to do with what we're talking about? Your saying "I mean, how can you describe poetry like American Bandstand" is again some kind of a joke, and again makes no sense — does the Pritchard theory really resemble anything done on American Bandstand? Is everything done on American Bandstand fallacious? Your final criticism is zaniest of all: "I like Byron. I give him a 42. But I can't dance to it." If you want to be a comedian, then you're doing fine — comedians get laughs by saying things that are deliberately irrational to the point of being deranged, but a comedic response to a theory is not a refutation of that theory, and leaves the impression that the comedian does not understand how to critique a theory, and so reverts to comedy because off-the-wall statements that elicit laughs come readily to his mind, but rational criticisms do not. Your treatment of Pritchard places the anti-intellectual example before students of jeering at things they do not like instead of refuting them. Continue giving your students more of the same, and you'll end up with a classroom of yahoos who heckle and catcall and boo and whistle and hiss and stamp their feet whenever they hear something that rubs them the wrong way, but who are unable to justify their aversion using rational speech.
In short, your ripping out of the Pritchard page was the act of a vandal yielding to his impulse to destroy that which he does not understand. The sickest part of your incitement to mindless destruction was your statement following the completion of destruction, "Now, my class, you will learn to think for yourselves again". But are students learning to think for themselves when they tear pages out of a textbook in obedience to a command from their teacher? If so, then does it follow that if they become very good at tearing pages out of books, say by averaging a hundred pages a day torn out mainly from library books, then they are becoming really superb at thinking for themselves?
The Pritchard theory of poem GREATNESS should have served as an invaluable tool in teaching students to distinguish good theories from bad ones, and you should restore that tool to Welton students by paying for a new set of textbooks out of your own pocket.
SECOND MEETING, STEP 2: I UNLEASH THE POWER OF THE FACE SCRUNCH
Let's face it — Welton Boys will not come to love Walt Whitman by studying him, by analyzing him, by understanding him. I have my own way of getting boys to appreciate Walt Whitman — I call it the Face Scrunch, and it is such a powerful tool in teaching poetry — well, yes, in education generally — that I only wish I could patent it.
It works like this. When I'm quoting say some poetry that I favor, I scrunch up my face as much as I can, and I tighten my voice, which has two valuable effects. First, my boys, imagining that I am in the throes of powerful emotion, imagine also that the cause of that emotion must be the poetry being quoted, and so they respect the power of that poetry, and with my precedent in mind, they tend to also feel the emotion they think they saw me experiencing whenever they hear that same poetry in the future. And second, my boys have already endured the scourge of my caustic wit, and the sting of my repartee, and expect that whenever I'm crossed I will lash out, and each prays that it will not be him that I lash out at. So, what the strong emotion that they think they see me experiencing also tells them is that I have a decided partiality and attachment to this poem, and that anyone who sends any signal that he doesn't is in danger of getting a tongue-lashing.
In short, my scrunched face with tightened voice tells my students that I am a snarling German shepherd dog, and that this poem is my bone, and that anybody who tries to tamper with my bone is going to get his arm bitten off.
That's how my students learn to identify great poetry, and that's how they begin to share my feelings toward that poetry. All the stuff teachers conventionally do — analyze the poem line by line, word by word, look up words in the dictionary, discuss what everything means, why the poet used this word over here and that word over there — honestly, I have wasted many precious hours of my life trekking down that iambic pentameter path, and the effect has never been half as good as what I get today relying entirely on face-scrunch plus voice tightening, and relying not at all on cerebration.
And of course face-scrunch works not only to express approval of any poem, but to express approval of any thought or idea. And of course just as face-scrunch can signal positive feeling and mandate acceptance, so too can it signal negative feeling and mandate rejection.
Oh, and of course I delivered my pro-poetry and pro-Walt-Whitman message to my Welton boys at ten times amplification by addressing them at doggie level, the level which is optimal for all manner of poetic discussion. I avoided the classic problem of audience-crotch-level delivery by having my boys gather around me in a huddle — meaning that most of them either crouched down with me, or else sat at nearby desks.
Honestly, when you put two powerful techniques to work synergistically — Face Scrunch together with Altitude Of Delivery — it is literally possible to have students fall in love with any poet of your choosing in less than five minutes.
It all went very smoothly with my American boys at Welton, but at the Chester School in London, Bo had been ever at hand to pour abuse on everything I did.
"It's all very well, your indicating to us by your facial contortions and temper tantrums what poetry is good and what is bad, but how are we to know when you're no longer with us? Should we not be taught some method for distinguishing good from bad on our own? Take, for example, the following two passages," he said, handing me a piece of paper, which I still have:
O for the humming of bees! O for the confidence and intrepidity of dragonflies!|
O for the lapping of nectar into the beaks of hummingbirds!
O for the play of sunshine and shadow on a forest brook!
O the lightness of being! it soars above the clouds! it sails to the stars!
I am not content with this glade in this land — I yearn for all glades in all lands.
* * *
O for the voices of animals! O for the swiftness and balance of fishes!
O for the dropping of rain-drops in a poem!
O for the sunshine, and motion of waves in a poem.
O the joy of my spirit! it is uncaged! it darts like lightning!
It is not enough to have this globe, or a certain time — I will have thousands of globes, and all time.
"On the one hand," continued Bo, "we may suspect that these are lines written by Walt Whitman, if only because of the relentless piling on of O's at the beginnings of sentences, and the compulsive piling on of exclamation marks at the ends — but how can we be sure that it's not the work of some talentless imitator, quite devoid not only of genius but of any merit whatever, someone who has never published a poem in his life, someone with nothing to say, some loser whose welfare checks have run out and who decides to take a shot at making beer money by dashing off meaningless poems? You do agree that such people exist, do you not — I mean mediocrities who write worthless poetry?"
"Well, you certainly seem to think that they do," retorted I.
"And as they do exist, how are we to protect ourselves from them, how are we to identify their work so that we may discard it, assuming of course that you are not present to signal this identification for us with your facial grimaces and strained intonations?"
"Nothing easier," answered I, ignoring the insults whose flow he seemed unable to terminate. "One listens for the harmony of elegance, one tastes for the savor of splendor, one sniffs for the aroma of genius."
"But allow me to ask whether you yourself are able to perform this discrimination, which your students cannot, but wish they could. Specifically, I wonder if you would submit to choosing which of the following four alternatives is correct", and he hands me a second piece of paper showing the four alternatives, as if I were a schoolboy to whom he administers a test:
(1) Both passages were written by Walt Whitman.|
(2) Only the first passage was written by Walt Whitman.
(3) Only the second passage was written by Walt Whitman.
(4) Neither passage was written by Walt Whitman."
Well, that was more than even I could endure! I crumpled up his two pieces of paper into one ball, and hurled it toward my wastepaper basket. It missed and bounced under the bed. "Get out!" I shouted, looming over him menacingly, which I was able to do even though he was taller than me because he was sitting and I had stood up.
Bo leapt out of his chair, gave me a very smart, "Thank you, O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Click", swiveled on one foot and marched out of the room.
I slumped down on my bed, my heart racing. How was it possible for Bo to be so contemptuously insulting to me one moment, and yet so militarily subordinate the next? Was Headmaster Middlethorpe right in thinking that my boys were ridiculing me with their O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Clicks?
I groped for Bo's crumpled papers under my bed, knocked off the dust balls which clung to them, unfolded and smoothed them. I anticipated needing evidence, someday, of the cruelty with which I had been tormented at the Chester School.
But why do I relive these London nightmares? I am safe at Welton Academy now, and my American boys give me no trouble, the occasional insubordination of Charlie Dalton being so mild that it is almost a pleasure in comparison to the unending stream of abuse showered on me by Bodan Kozak.
PLANT MY GRADUATING-YEAR SCHOOL ANNUAL WHERE THE BOYS WILL FIND IT
I notice that Neil Perry reading in the library, and I find a table at a distance where he won't see me, and I sit at this table and read, awaiting my opportunity, and when Neil leaves without taking his books, so that I know he'll be back soon, I place a copy of the 1944 School Annual on the same table, the School Annual of my year of graduation, where Neil is sure to see it when he returns, but far enough away from his own books that he won't imagine that it had been planted there for him to find. And sure enough, when he returns he does notice the Annual, picks it up and leafs through it, and finds enough of interest to take it with him when he leaves the library. At lunch, I can see Neil passing it across the table to Richard Cameron, and I can see that it generates a great deal of interest among all the boys at the table.
In bringing this School Annual to my boys' attention, I walk a fine line between impressing them with my accomplishments and giving them evidence that I am a fraud. "Captain of the soccer team", for example, makes me sound like a high-powered athlete, but Welton is a small school without even a gym, without even a phys ed teacher, let alone a soccer coach. It has no sports cups or trophies on display in its foyer. I have never overheard boys talking sports either in class or in the dining hall or in the dorm. Headmaster Nolan did not review any Welton sports feats in his Welcome-To-Welton address, and did not express hopes of any sports performance in the upcoming year. Teachers will occasionally take their class out on our vast lawns, as I did for the Read-Kick-Exercise that I described above, but not being trained in phys ed, they do there whatever strikes their fancy. My boys found my Read-Kick so boring that they asked if they could actually play a game of soccer next time, so a couple of weeks later we got another Welton class, only 11th graders, to come out to play against, and the 11-th graders pulled yellow shirts over their regular gym outfits to distinguish themselves, and we did have an informal game. No spectators, of course, other than three young Welton students that somehow were roaming around unsupervised. I was supposed to be referee, which was a laugh as I had to be reminded of how many points for a goal, or for a penalty kick, or anything, and didn't mind wading into the play whenever the ball came my way. I was soccer captain in my student days but didn't know the rules today? I got to be soccer captain when Welton imprudently agreed to have Schlimner Academy bus its soccer team over for a game, for which Welton selected its own team only the day before. A team captain was expected, and it ended up being me. Schlimner brought portable goals. We lost 11-0. That was the only soccer game I played in my life. My boys today seem to think that Welton had a real soccer team once.
Something similar can be said of "Editor Of The School Annual". Clerical work, boring beyond belief, any idiot can do it, and so nobody wanted to. The top students, the ones who were getting not only A's, but high A's, the ones who were going to get the prestige scholarships, considered it a waste of time. I, not being a member of any high-power cheating group, was getting low A's and lots of B's, and in maths and sciences, plenty of C's. I took the editorship because I had no choice but to pad my resume with Joe jobs that sounded impressive.
About "Cambridge Bound", the less said the better. Let my boys give me credit for having been admitted to Cambridge, but don't let them ask why I don't seem to have a Cambridge degree.
And my nickname, "Keats"! — It will seem harmless enough to my boys today, even complimentary, but back then it was just another jibe with which I was tormented. My Welton classmates, rednecks to the last man, despised poetry, and ridiculed my attachment to it, by calling me Keats, in order to draw attention to the discrepancy between the British poet, John Keats, and myself, John Keating, where John Keats was among the most renowned and beloved of British poets, and where I had been unable to get even a single poem published, not even in the School Annual, not even though I submitted three, and not even though I was supposed to be editor, my decisions being overridden by the teachers who were really in charge, the student editor being merely a figurehead who nevertheless was expected to shoulder the bulk of the clerical work. Most bitter of all was that I had no control whatever over the bios that accompanied the photos of the members of the graduating class, else I would never have allowed my bio to be so heavily laden with ridicule. A biography committee had been given responsibility for writing all the bios, under teacher supervision of course, with me not even getting to see what they had written until the School Annual was already in press.
And "Thigh Man" — Crueler and crueler! I had been the only one at our dining table to prefer dark meat on Chicken Wednesdays — was that any reason to taunt me with being a "thigh man"? Of course the taunt cut deeper than merely pointing to my deviant palate; it also made indirect reference to my not having a girl friend, as if my taste for chicken thighs was the only sense in which I could be considered a "thigh man". At least I managed to dispel that misperception, the misperception of being unable to attract a girl, by almost getting Clarissa to marry me in London, but that's another story. In any case, I don't lose any sleep over this item — my boys will take it to refer to my attraction to female thighs, which they will regard as macho.
And "Man Most Likely To Do Anything"? — Sounds almost likely "Man Most Likely To Succeed" — but that's the joke, that I wasn't at all the Man Most Likely To Succeed, I was only the man most likely to do something unpredictable, something zany, the man most unlikely to be where I should be, doing what I should be doing, the man most likely to prove unreliable and disappointing. To my cruel tormentors, "Man Most Likely To Do Anything" was code for "Man Most Likely To Do Anything But The Right Thing", and therefore code for "Man Most Likely To Fail". I don't lose sleep over this item either — my boys will take it to mean "Man Most Likely To Succeed", and that will be the end of it.
It was "Dead Poets Society" in the bio opposite my photo that I particularly wanted my boys to notice, as it was a Dead Poets Society that I had come to Welton Academy to create. They were supposed to become fascinated by the idea of such a Society, were supposed to come to ask me about it, whereupon I would with my honeyed words and mellifluous voice infect them with the Dead-Poets-Society virus.
Dying to know what they might be saying about that School Annual, I slowly made my way past their table. The boys were absorbed in their own discussion, and paying no attention to who might be walking past or overhearing them. What I managed to hear was disturbing. "What is the Dead Poets Society?" "I don't know." "Is there a picture in the Annual?" "Nothing. No other mention of it."
The little buggers had not yet achieved the requisite state of passivity — they were daring to wonder why, if there had existed a Dead Poets Society, there was not a group photograph of the members of that Society in the School Annual, as there was a group photo of every other society and organization and club and team. And so here I was, because of their passivity being insufficiently deep, close to shipwreck, the next step after noticing the absence of any group photo, threatening to be their also recognizing the significance of the fact that in the entire 1944 Welton Academy School Annual, I was the only student claiming affiliation with this mysterious Dead Poets Society. Would my boys be canny enough, be bold enough, to arrive at, or at least consider the possibility of, the conclusion that the 1944 Dead Poets Society had a membership of exactly one? Is it conceivable that they were not so brain dead as to recognize that "Dead Poets Society" opposite my name in the School Annual was just another cruel taunt, was just my sadistic classmates making fun of my attempt to create a Dead Poets Society, when the membership of that Society never extended beyond myself?
I INFECT MY BOYS WITH THE DEAD-POETS-SOCIETY VIRUS
Right after my boys discuss the discovery of my senior-year School Annual over lunch, they chase me across the lawn to question me about it. I already described earlier how I had refused to pay any attention to their calling out to me "Mr Keating", or even "Sir", and had turned around to greet them with "Gentlemen" only once they had remembered to address me as "O-Captain-My-Captain".
My first goal was to get that School Annual out of their hands and out of their line of vision so that it would not remind them of the many things it said that I did not want to be questioned about, which is why I grabbed it away from them and did not invite them to examine it along with me, looking at it beside me, say, or over my shoulder, and in fact held it so that it would be upside down for them.
And before they had a chance to begin asking questions, I distracted their attention first to my surprise at how different I looked in my photo, then flipped to another page where I commented on Stanley "The Tool" Wilson, all the while turning away from them so as to remove the School Annual even farther from their gaze, and all the while also keeping in mind Maharishi Menshi Yogi's teaching on the importance of altitude-of-delivery, and therefore beginning to crouch down to doggie level, which I well knew was optimal for rendering recollections of personal history both more vivid and more appealing.
All the while I was feeding into my mental-telepathy beam a single instruction: "Ask me about the Dead Poets Society. Ask me about the Dead Poets Society."
And of course the mental telepathy worked, just as it has always worked with my Welton class, right from our first meeting, with Neil Perry now asking, "What was the Dead Poets Society?" All you telepathy naysayers go to hell! Mental telepathy does work, or my name isn't John Keating.
I started off by conveying the need for secrecy: "I doubt the present administration would look too favorably upon that", which served also to explain why the Dead Poet Society hadn't been covered in the School Annual — the authorities disapproved of it. Boys love secret organizations, and immediately I sensed a surge of sympathy emanating from them, just as they must have felt the attraction of what I was saying being made irresistible by the tenfold amplification it was receiving from my doggie-level delivery.
I repeated the need for secrecy, then proceeded to suppress their capacity to resist by means of yet another legitimizing incantation: "The Dead Poets were dedicated to sucking the marrow out of life." Sounds good, but means nothing. One student sucks the marrow of life by going out and getting drunk, another by watching a hockey game, and a third by doing his algebra homework. Apply it to whatever you want to do, because it will make you feel better as you do it, and apply it to whatever you command someone else to do, because it will make him more likely to obey your command. Bo taught me to understand legitimizing incantations in London, but which doesn't stop me from using them in my work, as I need them to accomplish my ends, which being beneficent justify all means.
And then I came to a very delicate topic — the Old Indian Cave. On the one hand I did want to mention it in order to place my earlier DPS in a setting that made it seem more adventurous, idyllic, exotic, and private. On the other hand, I did not want to make the cave too attractive, because it was to play absolutely no role in my new DPS, the reason being that that stupid cave is what destroyed my first DPS.
Yes, when I was myself a Welton student in days of yore, I did interest four of my classmates enough in my DPS proposal that they followed me to that Old Indian Cave. Trouble was that although I had a good map, I had never been to the cave myself. By the time the five of us arrived at the cave, we were already being devoured by mosquitoes and blackflies — it was spring, and the height of the bug season. We were also scratched by the thick brush and bruised and soiled from slipping on wet rocks and roots. It took all my urging to get everybody inside, but once inside we found it frighteningly dark despite our several flashlights, and infested with bats, spiders, and centipedes, and with rain in places dripping in on us from above, and in other places streaming in, and its floor littered with masses of material fallen from the ceiling, and not to be walked over so much as climbed over, and everywhere mud, and coated also with a layer of batshit. In the cave, there was nowhere to sit, nowhere to lay anything down, nothing to lean against — except at the cost of carrying away a layer of mud and batshit. The mosquitoes and blackflies had not at all been left outside the cave — they followed us in, and in that confined space found us easy victims. On top of everything, the mounds of debris on the floor of the cave appearing to have fallen from the ceiling, we reasonably feared additional cave-ins. Everyone recognized in less than two seconds that this so-called Old Indian Cave was a hell-hole in which no sort of activity could be carried on, and from which it was necessary to flee instantly. We all rushed out, stumbling and falling over debris and each other, getting scratched and cut and bruised and besmeared, and ran through that god-forsaken forest pursued by the devouring insects. The laundering and cleaning of our clothing and shoes went on for days, with some articles being discarded as being beyond cleaning or beyond repair. Our scratches and bruises and bites were still healing weeks later.
Needless to say, the experience was so traumatic that it undermined all confidence in my leadership and killed all interest in my DPS. Everybody who had ventured on that exploratory expedition stopped talking to me, and turned instead to jeering and taunting. It was with that ill-fated expedition in mind that my classmates inserted "Dead Poets Society" into my School Annual bio. It was with the memory — or sometimes only the hearsay report — of that filth and those injuries and those biting insects that they inserted "Man Most Likely To Do Anything" into my bio.
And that is why I now merely mentioned the cave, while at the same time refraining from offering any inducement to use it for future meetings. Although I did recognize some danger in even my least mention, on account of everything being amplified tenfold by my doggie-level delivery, I hoped for the best and failed to take preventative action, which would have been to stand up, and therefore turn off amplification, during mention of the Old Indian Cave. And that is how the Old Indian Cave implanted itself into my boys' thinking, and became integral to their plans. I should have known to handle Menshi's altitude-of-delivery amplification with the same caution as I would have handled nitroglycerin or TNT.
Other than the Cave error, everything went well. The boys seemed receptive, with the possible exception of carrot-topped Richard Cameron when he gave a strongly incredulous look at my mention of students reading their own poetry. Reminds me of the look of severe disapproval he gave me when I went into doggie-stance right behind him during my foyer talk on Carpe Diem. Can't be sure his loyalty is above suspicion.
And maybe Knox Overstreet's enthusiasm left something to be desired as well.
Perhaps it was these two signals of incomplete dedication that inspired me to make a few extravagant claims, which as soon as I had made them gave me fear that my boys would call my bluff. If Bo had been with us here at Welton, instead of back in London, he certainly would have called my bluff. I can just hear him asking "Would it be troubling you to give us a demonstration of poetry not merely being read well, but actually dripping from your tongue like honey, O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Click?" Or "Did you have medical attention on hand to assist the women who swooned, O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Click?" Or, "Would you be able to give us a demonstration of how you are able to create gods, O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Click, and would it be possible to imprison one such god in a lamp, say, as the Arabs used to imprison genies, O-Captain-My-Captain-Salute-Click?" But I got nothing of that sort from my Vermont boys. They just looked at me as if I was speaking rationally, and not concocting fairy tales.
My suggestion that this might "Not be a bad way to spend the evening, eh?" met with a feeble response. Nevertheless, the virus had been planted, and would not take long to reproduce itself in numbers vast enough that symptoms would become evident.
A final reminder that what was important for my boys to remember about the School Annual was not "Keats", and not "Cambridge Bound", and not "Man Most Likely To Do Anything", and not "Thigh Man", but only my embarrassment at my photo (a distractor to absorb some of their attention) and the Dead Poets Society (intended as the chief focus of their attention). I exit whistling, indicative of my continuing to be available on the telepathic channel, even though physically removed. The last thing I heard coming from the boys behind me was "Dead Poets Society", which I took to be their beginning on their next topic of conversation, and which was exactly according to plan.
After I had walked away a short distance, I circled around and watched the boys from behind a tree. They were debating whether or not to establish the Dead Poets Society. There was much give and take, but on the whole, it looked like they were going to do it. As the boys entered the building for their next class, I could see shirtsleeved Charlie Dalton continuing to work on a still-unpersuaded Knox Overstreet, using the argument that participation in the Dead Poets Society would help Overstreet win the love of blonde babe Chris Noel, and Charlie's argument focussed on my claim that Women Swoon. Bingo! Goal achieved: the virus had been transmitted. I had not long to wait, as its incubation period was short.
Yes, that's exactly where the virus had been embedded, within those two words, Women Swoon!
That is the one image that I had wanted blazing in their minds more brilliantly than all else — the image of a secret cave in which they sucked the marrow out of life while dripping poetry from their tongues like honey and while creating gods, and in which Women Swooned. Not to make too fine a point of it, my boys were being beckoned by the promise that they could become Hugh Hefners even while attending high school. If anyone can imagine a stronger inducement to action that can be offered teenage boys than this, I would like to know what it is. Forget all my talk about the beauty of poetry. I was telling my boys to tolerate poetry because it would get them sex.
Unfortunately, however, my boys were envisioning the Dead Poets Society as necessarily taking place in the Old Indian Cave, to which they were going that very night — which threatened that this latest Dead Poets Society would die the same early death as my first one. But it was only ten in the morning, and the boys might not be expected to arrive at the cave until after ten at night. I had twelve hours to accomplish a miracle. I immediately drove into town heading straight for the pest control sign that I had seen over one of the businesses on a side street, hoping mainly to do something about the cave's bats and spiders and centipedes. The owner there, Jim, listened sympathetically to my story that Welton boys would be hiking often in the area of the cave, and would enjoy having a cave to peek into as part of their trek, and might also need sometimes to shelter in it, or maybe to store gear in — if only it weren't for the vermin and the batshit and the mud. Jim said he could send three men with shovels and wheelbarrows and a truckfull of sand, and see what steps they could take to sanitize the cave and make it more hospitable — for only three hundred dollars. When I inspected the cave at seven o'clock, I judged that to squeamish eyes it might still look like a horrid mud hole, but to the eyes of teenage boys with visions of Swooning Women dancing in their heads, it just might pass as a love grotto.
It turned out that my initial effort to improve the cave got the boys successfully through their first visit, but it was not enough. They preferred to stand instead of sitting, and when they sat it was on something they had brought with them, and they still noticed mud. Accordingly, I got a building contractor to go in and spray the entire cave with a layer of stucco, dirt-colored to match the original hues of the cave. The result was truly impressive — now the boys were able to sit and lounge anywhere even wearing their best clothes, and able to throw their coats wherever they wanted, just as if they were in someone's living room. Their level of passivity was high enough that they did not notice even such radical changes as these in their environment, or if they did notice them, they did not wonder how they could have come about. Perhaps their acquaintance with the out-of-doors was so limited that they were capable of imagining that the change in the cave was just the sort of change that naturally happened in caves. The stucco-spraying was not cheap. It will take me years to pay off that debt, but it was worth it, the alternative having been to have my latest Dead Poets Society fail just as my first two had.
THIRD LESSON, STEP 1: BOOSTER SHOT OF THE DEAD-POETS-SOCIETY VIRUS
Yes, the boys have been infected, but a booster shot never hurts. At the beginning of my third lesson, I repeat the promise that I'm showing them how to become Hugh Hefners. I put my set-up question first to Death Anderson, and when he can't muster any response, I insult him (ask him if he's an amoeba, as described earlier) and pass on to Neil Perry. Yesterday I taught my boys that poetry makes women swoon, today I teach them that the purpose of language is to woo women. Nobody ever accused me of not knowing how to reach teenage boys.
THIRD LESSON, STEP 2: WALK ALL OVER MY DESK
Working as dishwasher in Sandy's Bar and Grill in London introduced me to a host of pesky and irrational food-safety rules which became the bane of my existence. The two that gave me the most trouble were Never put your feet where people sit, and Never sit on any table or working surface. Hell, I've enjoyed casual sitting all my life without ill effect, but Sandy saw fit to give me two warnings for supposed violations, and fired me for a third.
Now that I'm back home at Welton, I plant my shoes on a student's chair, and sling my ass across his desk, and nobody gives a damn. In fact, the boys appreciate my informality. I begin to understand why they call America the Land of the Free!
I next venture to plant my feet on top of two student desks, and instead of citing me for some imaginary public health violation, they call me an inspired teacher. It sure is good to be back among people who think rationally.
And not to forget that my placement of different parts of my body isn't just satisfying a whim, it's also sometimes my optimizing altitude-of-delivery as taught me by London-based Maharishi Menshi Yogi. But when my subject matter calls for eagle-level delivery, I don't have much choice — I either stand up on my own desk, which feels too far away from the boys, or I stand on two of the boys' desktops, which brings me closer to them, and kindles a sense of coziness and intimacy.
But, wouldn't you know, along comes Charlie Dalton trying to spoil everything again. Never thought he was anal-retentive before, but it looks like I was wrong.
Charlie starts off on a seemingly pointless ramble. He recollects that at home, everybody takes his shoes off at the door. "Just the sort of thing I'd expect in a banker's mansion", say I, aware that Charlie comes from a wealthy banking family, just as Knox Overstreet comes from a rich lawyering family. Charlie is thrown off only for an eyeblink, then resumes, perhaps having abandoned his intention to brag about his father's mansion. "Although Welton College is often thought of as lying out in the wilderness, it is really situated within a town, and its extensive lawns are used by neighboring townsfolk to walk their dogs, with the result — verified by experiment — that is it impossible to walk blindfolded straight across any Welton lawn without stepping into at least one pile of dogshit."
We'll, I've derailed Charlie once before in this particular chat, and I'll keep doing it, as I'm not happy with the direction in which he may be heading. Reminds me too much of my talks with Sandy in her Bar and Grill in London. And so I say to Charlie, "It would be nice if God made dogs that didn't shit, but he overlooked that improvement, and so now we're stuck with the original model!"
But Charlie continues, trying to look unperturbed, "This is not a matter that is likely to concern a teenage boy, until the fateful day arrives when in the middle of romping on any of our fields he experiences his first immersion, which brings out the squeamish and fastidious part of his personality as nothing else can."
"Spare me the details."
"And the geese are both worse and better in this realm — worse in that anywhere within sight of the lake their droppings are so densely distributed that even taking the greatest care, one inevitably steps into them, but better in the smell department."
"So far, then, what I can be grateful for your having confided in me is that you prefer geese to dogs."
"Occasionally one may be walking down a Welton hallway and smell dogshit which someone has stepped into outdoors and is now carrying around the school, and sometimes the same smell enters a classroom on some boy's shoes."
"I understand that Louis Vuitton has begun to offer shoes for under five thousand dollars, which I imagine is a disappointment to bankers, because now their Louis Vuitton collections will seem less exclusive."
Almost as if he hadn't heard me, Charlie drones on, "And on top of that, people are capable of spitting on lawns and sidewalks, and sometimes the excessive consumption of alcohol can end in — but I can see your attention flagging, and so I leave further examples to your imagination, and move ahead to my conclusion, which is that maybe for public health reasons it would be better if you gave some thought to keeping your shoes planted more firmly on the floor."
Having been at long last apprised of what he'd been driving at — he turned out to be just a Sandy clone transported from London to Vermont — my anger mounts, and I tell him sharply, "I am not about to start living in fear. I am not about to circumscribe my actions within a set of nitpicking rules. And if I want your advice on how to run my classroom, I'll ask for it," upon which I abruptly turn my back on him and walk away.
I suddenly realize that I have an obligation to demonstrate to Charlie not only that he has failed to bring me under his control, but also that I have swung the entire class over to my side, that every last boy in the class agrees with me and not him, that he is alone at Welton, just as I once was.
But is Charlie alone? I suddenly recall having seen him prostrate on someone else's bed in the dorm, and with his shoes up on the bed. Isn't he, therefore, really just like all other teenagers, and just like me — oblivious to where he plants his shoes? If that is the case, as it seems to me that it is, then doesn't that mean that he's been put up to this latest attack on me by my enemies?
But whether he's alone or part of a conspiracy, I need to discredit him, and which I accomplish in our very next class by repeating a demonstration that I had already tested in London, a demonstration teaching the importance of looking at things from different points of view. In London, truth to tell, the trial run had not been completely successful, but that was only because Bo wrecked it, as he wrecked everything. Here in America there was no Bo, and everything was sure to proceed without a hitch. And yet there was Charlie.
And so in the middle of my third class, without introduction or explanation, I suddenly jump up on my desk, and feeling confident that these Welton students are passive enough that they will accept any reason I happen to give for doing so, particularly since eagle-elevation-delivery on this topic gives me a whopping 17 times amplification, I say a few words about how insightful a change of viewpoint can be. And then, to show Charlie once and for all how absolutely I refuse to be ruled by him, I invite the boys to climb up the back of my desk, walk across it, and jump down in front. If the sight of the entire class trooping across my desk in their dogshit- and gooseshit-caked shoes doesn't shut Charlie up, doesn't teach him to never try to control my behavior again, then I don't know what will.
And so that's what I do, and it works like a charm, and even Charlie takes his turn clomping across my desk, and everybody is happy. With the exception of Mr Death Anderson, I might qualify, whom I cannot resist insulting as he is about to jump down off my desk, last in line he is, and on whom I cannot resist also turning off the lights while he is still up on that desk with everybody laughing at him, as I remember describing a few pages back in my Diary.
But why, in the midst of my American happiness, safe and secure here in Vermont, cannot I stop brooding about the trauma of London in general, and my persecution by Bo in particular? When I had my class troop across my desk in the Chester School, Bo did not join the others, but rather stood off by himself, shoulder leaning on a wall, watching. As the last boy hopped off the desk, Bo had the audacity to begin addressing the class, without asking my permission, seeming sometimes to be unconscious of my presence. "This is all very charming," he burst out sarcastically, "but would anyone please tell me what insight this exercise has given him?" There was a stunned silence. "Any insight at all, no matter how modest is all I am asking for." Still silence. "Well, come on, you've examined the world from a different viewpoint, and it must have taught you something or revealed some curiosity?"
And instead of letting the matter drop, his point perhaps having been made, Bo's indignation seemed to mount, and he said in a louder voice and now with an undertone of contempt, "Methinks that this demonstration has brought not a single student not a single insight, and it is not hard to see why. The reason is that we experience two- or three-foot changes in elevation a hundred times a day." Bo cannot open his mouth without an exaggeration popping out. "We experience it whenever we stand up from our seats or sit down, and when we get up out of bed or lie down again, and when we stumble and fall, then all the better as far as the magnitude of our point-of-view shift is concerned, because now we're talking about shifting our eyeballs from six inches below six feet to six inches above the floor — a five-foot difference. And we experience maybe a ten-foot change in elevation whenever we walk up or down a Welton staircase, or when we look out of a dormitory window. And most of us have flown in airplanes from which we experience a change of viewpoint of thousands of feet. Climbing up on this desk, then, showed us nothing new, and taught us nothing of value. Mr Keating did recommend considering different points of view when we read, but gave no examples."
"Thank you very much for your creative speculations, Bo," I said. "And if you will now resume your seat, I will be able to get on with the class."
But Bo, making no move to sit down, said, "I'm not finished," in so dismissive a voice as to make me hesitate, which opportunity he seized to continue.
"Speaking of Mr Keating's failing to provide examples of different points of view while reading, consider that when he read us Gather Ye Rosebuds a few days ago, he didn't caution us to distrust the writer, Robert Herrick, against the possibility that Herrick might be expressing only one viewpoint, and that there might exist alternative viewpoints. Mr Keating's silence on the question of different viewpoints at that time gave us to believe instead that Herrick was telling the truth, and that we had better believe him.
"And what exactly did Herrick tell us? Why he told us a bald-faced lie. He told us that our highest goal in life was to go out and get laid, starting as young as possible, and continuing as long as possible. He told us that as our fascination with getting laid waned, life became meaningless. He proclaimed, in other words, an early version of Hugh Hefner's so-called Playboy Philosophy:
That age is best which is the first,|
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
"And the alternative viewpoints — from whom might they originate?" asked Bo rhetorically. He held up a book. "Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice." A long pause. What was he waiting for? How was Pride and Prejudice relevant to anything we were talking about? Was he going to be able to come up with something rational or not? I almost wished I had finished reading it, but that first chapter was just too dry for me, and too corny. "Written at the post-Rosebud-Gathering age of 38!" Bo slammed the book down on his desk." He held up another book. "Leo Tolstoy. War and Peace." Another long pause. "Written at age 41!" He slammed War and Peace down on top of Pride and Prejudice.
"Bo, if those books are from the Chester library, I must caution you that you are not handling them with due care. They're going to come apart if you keep mistreating them like that."
"They do come from the library. My treatment of them may be noisy, but it is nevertheless careful. In any case, I tear out no pages."
He held up a third book, "Victor Hugo. Les Miserables." A very long pause which I found to be barely endurable. "Written at age 60!" He slammed it down too, harder than the preceding two.
"Had these three authors been asked what they thought of Herrick's worship of the Rosebud-Gathering years, they might have answered that no teenager ever wrote anything worth a damn. Teenagers are too stupid and too undisciplined. They are fit only for chasing butterflies, sniffing flowers, and collecting pretty pebbles along the beach — and of course Gathering Rosebuds. These three authors, and a hundred of the world's leading authors along with them, would likely say that they were relieved to have graduated from their flighty Rosebud-Gathering years so that they could get some serious work done.
"Thank you, Bo..." I began, but he cut me off with another menacing "I'm not finished!"
"And after the few minutes I spent in the Fiction section of the Chester library, I made my way to the Art section, where I was reminded that the most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa, was painted by Leonardo da Vinci — when he was in his 60s. And I produce for your inspection this mammoth art book which I will ask someone to open at any page at random, and I will predict right now what we will find on that page. We will find that the work on that page was produced most often by an artist in his 40s or 50s, and more often in his 60s than in his 30s, and even more often in his 70s than in his 20s. Absolutely never in his teens. Go ahead, says Bo holding the book out toward the middle of the class, not offering it to anybody in particular, but rather to whomever cared to reach out and take it.
A nearby boy does open the book haphazardly, and Bo holds the open book up for all to see, and reads out that the picture on the left is a self-portrait by Albrecht Dürer, and from the caption giving the date of the painting and as well the dates of birth and death of the artist, quickly computes that Dürer painted it at the age of 29.
And on the right-hand page of that open book is an etching titled Knight, Death, and the Devil, also by Dürer, and who created it at the age of 42.
"Look at these two works of art," continues Bo, "and ask yourself whether you have ever in your life created anything as impressive — and I know that your answer will be No, of course I haven't. And then ask yourself how soon it will be before you will be able to create anything equally impressive, in any field, in art, in music, in literature, in science, in medicine, in engineering, in military leadership, in political leadership. And here too I know what your answer will be — that it will take a good many more years. Yes, a good many more years is what it is going to take to transform us from boys into men, and which is when our lives will really begin."
"And I end my presentation of pictures with this view of the dome of St Peter's Basilica in Vatican City," said Bo, holding up another book, whose page he had marked and which he now opened and presented to the class. "Needless to say, this dome was not designed by a teenager, nor by anyone in his twenties. It was designed by Michelangelo — at age 88!"
"The alternative view that I propose to you today is that our greatest accomplishments come only after youth has fled and blood has cooled. What Herrick proposes is that we do not raise our sights above child's play, but the grand adventure of life that awaits us is man's work. That is the alternative view that should be brought to the attention of everyone who reads Herrick's Gather Ye Rosebuds poem. When you walked across Mr Keating's desk just now, you learned nothing about shifting points of view. When you listened to me discussing Herrick's poem just now, you did learn what it means to shift points of view, and the new point of view that you were presented is one that Mr Keating tried to hide from you. Mr Keating does not want to teach you to see different points of view; Mr Keating wants only to teach you to adopt his point of view, while being blinded to all others, and while flattering yourself that walking across his desk magically heightened your mental flexibility. That curious walk did indeed give you added flexibility — added flexibility as to where you think it is permissible to walk. Now you have become people who are capable of walking across furniture. However, this was not a flexibility that you needed, or that will stand you in good stead, or that will help you through life. It is a flexibility that will get you into trouble, and that will make you look like an idiot. The flexibility you need, Mr Keating denies you. Mr Keating does not have your best interests in mind, he has some hidden agenda of his own which he pursues, and which tramples your wellbeing underfoot.
"And ask yourself whether we teenagers need encouragement to strike out on the path of Gathering Rosebuds, or whether we are not already blindly committed to that path, and so that any action to dampen our commitment can be expected to have negligible effect, whereas any action to inflame that commitment is able to push us dangerously closer to folly and to wasted life."
And at this point, Bo suddenly sits down, as if he were a prosecutor who rests his case.
Well, what was I to think when I heard all that, except that the conspiracy against me was far more powerful than anything I had ever imagined, and that my enemies were even now hacking at me with death-strokes, and that I was within an inch of my life, at least my professional life. How came Bo to be equipped with all those books from the library? He must have brought them intending to deliver his Gather-Ye-Rosebuds diatribe, but without knowing that I would pull my desk-walking extravaganza that same day, and he decided to deliver his diatribe anyway, and in fact to connect it to the desk-walking. I really was too wounded to continue my class, I needed to crawl away to a place of refuge and gather my strength and begin the process of healing.
I said aloud, "Thank you, Bo, for sharing with us your pronouncements concerning what does constitute a different point of view, and what does not. I am sure that as your thinking on this question matures with age and experience, it will become a little less simple-minded, and hopefully also more interesting. Class dismissed!"
Ah, but how those London nightmares continue to torment me! Of course everything Bo said in London was true then and continues to be true now, here in Vermont. Of course I wasn't really trying to teach my boys to see from different points of view either then or now. How foolish it would be to teach my Vermont boys to see from different perspectives when I am already supplying them with the best perspective. I had them walk across my desk to teach Charlie Dalton not to try to impose his psychotic fear of dirt on me, at which I think I succeeded admirably.
True, those many shoes did seem to leave guck all over my desk, but what do I care? To me that desk is merely a place to rest my books, which I am even happier to store beside a bustling thoroughfare than on a sterile desktop.
I IMPORT MENSHI'S CONFORMITY EXPERIMENT FROM LONDON TO VERMONT
Back in London I had watched Maharishi Menshi Yogi give a stunning demonstration of the grip of conformity on our lives. Menshi, as his intimates called him, led his class of some six students to a small parking lot and asked three of them to "Just take a stroll" which they began to do around the perimeter of the lot. Amazingly, after they had taken just a few steps, they started marching in unison, almost as if they were soldiers on parade. "Can anything be more destructive of our freedom and independence than the crushing need to conform," asked Menshi, "so overwhelming in its power as to exact from every one of us such close imitation as we have just witnessed?"
Wishing to expose my Chester students to this same revealing experiment, I duplicated Menshi's procedure by gathering my class in a small courtyard, asking three students to "Just take a stroll," and being pleased to find that this trio too soon began marching in step, which greatly impressed all my students ... with the exception, as might be expected, of Bo.
Bo accosted me after class to say that "there could be found in our society not the slightest evidence of any need to walk in step with anybody else, which everyone convinces himself of daily on every street in the city, and in every corridor of every building, by noticing that people do not in fact walk in step, except briefly as might be expected by chance from people paying no attention whatever — conscious or unconscious — to their walking. Even when two people walked together, or sometimes even three people, they could be seen to be walking independently of each other, which is to say, usually out of step. Even when a whole group of people was moving en masse, as for example tourists in an art gallery being led by a guide, not one could be seen to be synchronized with any other. As all walking everywhere fails to show military step, Menshi is left without empirical support for his hypothesis of alarmingly-profound conformity."
"The reason that your three Chester students did march in step," continued Bo, "is that they did not know what was expected of them, and therefore proceeded to guess so as to be able to give you, their teacher, what you wanted and thereby not spoil your demonstration. They guessed that 'Just take a stroll' meant 'Just take a stroll together in a group around the perimeter of the courtyard', and they guessed that walking single file might also be what was wanted. But walking single file while sticking together could lead to stepping on each other's heels — unless everybody walked in step, and so they tried walking in step, and then from cues of approval, or maybe just of interest or amusement, given off by the onlooking students, and by you yourself, they guessed that this might be the very thing that was expected, for what ultimate purpose they could not understand, but in support of which unknown purpose they were ready to lend their cooperation anyway. The so-called conformity in Menshi's procedure, then, consists not of students wanting to walk like each other, but only of students wanting to walk the way they guess their teacher wants them to."
Well, never mind Bo and his attempts to be smarter than everybody else, including smarter than the revered Maharishi Menshi Yogi, to whom he cannot hold a candle. As Bo has been left back in London, what he thinks, or pretends to think, doesn't matter to us here in Vermont. I see value in conducting the Menshi experiment for the enlightenment of my Welton students, and after that in going on to explain to them the importance of avoiding blind conformity.
And of course the Menshi experiment did go swimmingly here at Welton, pretty much. Within the first steps that my Welton trio — Richard Cameron in front, then Gerard Pitts, and Knox Overstreet trailing — began their walk, they were already marching in step.
And having rounded the first corner, I could see that if they hadn't been in step, they would indeed have been stumbling over each others' heels as Bo had noted, but this was only because Gerard Pitts with his long legs happened to be in the middle. But the military step would undoubtedly have made its appearance anyway, even if I had chosen the three shortest boys in the class to do the walking. As soon as the military step became evident, the entire class seemed to conclude that in-step marching was indeed what I was waiting to see, and so began to clap out the beat, and I myself let everybody know how pleased I was with the result by exclaiming, "There it is".
To still more emphatically express my approval of their military marching, I began to chant the drill-sergeant refrain "I don't know, but I've been told", which the students echoed, all of us loud enough to be heard from the Headmaster's office, from which I could see Nolan watching, I guessed with admiration at what I was doing. And then I ad-libbed the rhyming next line, "Doing poetry is cold" — not that hard to do for somebody who teaches poetry, especially when there are so many rhymes to told, like old, bold, cold, fold, gold, hold, and so on, and that's even before venturing into polysyllabics like untold, parolled, withhold, and so on.
And the boys obligingly echoed my second line as well, whereupon I went into hard-core drill-sergeant mode with my "Left! Left! Left right left!" and eventually brought my trio to a halt that would have done credit to a real military parade, in front of the queen even. And so there you have it — conformity up to our necks, coming out of our ears, and not only conformity of the marching trio, but approval of conformity from the rhythm-clapping onlookers as well. My Vermont boys never disappoint.
And then I hit them with my sermon. "Now, I didn't bring them up here to ridicule them. I brought them up here to illustrate the point of conformity. The difficulty of maintaining your own beliefs in the face of others. Now we all have a great need for acceptance. But you must trust that your beliefs are unique, your own. Even though others may think them odd or unpopular. Even though the herd may go, That's ba-a-a-a-ad." Here the boys laughed at my imitation of a sheep. "Robert Frost said, 'Two roads diverged in the wood and I, I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.' I want you to find your own walk right now, your own way of striding, pacing any direction. Anything you want, whether it's proud, whether it's silly, anything. Gentlemen, the courtyard is yours." Here the boys murmured and chuckled with pleasure at their newly-granted freedom to walk in whatever manner gave them the deepest satisfaction. "You don't have to perform, just make it for yourself."
And so my boys go meandering around the courtyard trying to discover their own unique way of walking, and I gaze at them with love, because what shepherd cannot but love his sheep, and these boys are my sheep, and I sometimes am amazed that the Supreme Being has put so many sheep into the world, and at the same time so few shepherds, like myself, such that the shepherds never lack for employment. My sheep wander around this courtyard, convinced that they have been shown evidence of their own stifling conformity, but thankfully lack the power to recall that every time we walk together anywhere, we do not march in step, as when we just minutes ago walked together to this very courtyard, we did not march in step, or when we all walked together to the field where I staged the Read-Kick-Exercise, we did not march in step, as I happen to vividly remember because at that particular moment I happened to be thinking of the Menshi conformity experiment I had encountered in London, and was therefore on the lookout for military step.
Boys who believe that Menshi's march-in-step experiment is symptomatic of blind conformity have been taught to be so mentally passive that they can be made to believe anything, and can be made to do anything.
They can even be made to wander around a courtyard trying to find something that doesn't exist.
In the midst of this group hunt for each boy's true walk, reminiscent of nothing so much as a kindergarteners' Easter-egg hunt, but with the difference that in the latter case there really are things that can be found, Charlie Dalton comes up to me and complains that he doesn't have any true way of walking, and he thinks that nobody does, so that looking for it is a waste of time. "There have been occasions in my life," elaborates Charlie, "when I needed to march in step, and did, as in Scouts. And there have also been times when I needed to not awaken sleepers, and therefore I tiptoed. And whenever I walked on ice, I planted my feet straight down so as not to slip. And when I walked with bare feet across hot sand, there was a tendency to skip. And when I wore flip-flops, I had to keep my toes curled so that they wouldn't fall off. The flip-flops, I mean. And wading through water in rubber boots gave me a still different walk. And when I had to get somewhere fast, I took the longest strides I was capable of and at the fastest pace. And when I dragged an inflatable wading pool across the lawn, I walked backwards, and when I had to squeeze my way through a crowded room I walked sideways. And so on, and so on, such that I can identify scores of different walks that I have used on different occasions or for different purposes, and I don't know how to select from among them my one true walk, whatever that is."
"And in any case," continues Charlie before I get a chance to get a word in edgewise, "if my true walk is the walk that I use most often, then why search for it when it is already known and practiced and in full use? And surely it would be highly foolish to abandon my most-usual way of walking on the assumption that it is a mere imitation in response to an impulse to conform, and that some replacement needs to be found which is not a mere imitation."
"And in any case again, what is wrong with imitation, anyway? If I notice someone walking unattractively, I try to avoid walking that way myself, and if I notice someone walking attractively, I try to make myself walk that way too. That is not blind conformity, it is a way of improving my attractiveness."
"And in any case yet again, the idea of seeking an individualistic walk goes against the spirit of Welton. Look at us," said Charlie, sweeping his hand in the direction of the Easter-egg hunters, "do you notice that we are all wearing the same outfit, that we are in uniform? We are put in uniform so as to make us more uniform, more homogeneous, less distinguishable by our dress. The reason for this is that at Welton we are allowed to attract attention by one method only — by meritorious performance. Most usually academic performance, but also sports, and sometimes music or acting. But what is not allowed is attracting attention, striving for recognition, on frivolous dimensions. Welton does not allow you to get attention by wearing red pants or a straw hat. For the same reason, Welton does not allow you to get attention, or stick out, by walking strangely. If you tried that, you would be condemned as pretentious, ostentatious, struggling for recognition when you had earned none, conceited, and just plain ridiculous. Yes, homogeneity is sought at Welton on every dimension that does not reflect accomplishment, and this is good."
"And in any case, to pay attention to how other people walk, and to try to walk differently from them, is not freedom and it is not independence, it is allowing others to determine how we walk. If we insist on walking in step with others, then they obviously do determine how we will walk, but if we refuse to walk in step with others, then they also determine how we will walk. Following either rule, a walker has to continuously monitor what others are doing so that he will know what he himself must do."
"And how do you think we should walk?" I am finally able to ask Charlie.
"In the first place," Charlie answers, "I think we should pay no attention to walking, because there are a thousand other things that are more important to pay attention to. And in the second place, if we do pay attention to how we walk, it should be to make our walk as much like everybody else's as possible, this so that people will listen what we have to say, and not be distracted from our words by the dancing and prancing and mincing and grinding that we have introduced into our walk upon the recommendation of a brain-scrambled teacher."
Charlie was smiling when he said "brain-scrambled teacher", inviting me to accept it as a joke, as friendly banter — and yet the cheekiness, the presumption of this teenager, barely out of diapers, taking his banter right up to the boundary of mortal insult! If this is banter, then it is nevertheless too egregious to be either forgiven or forgotten. Speaking those words made us mortal enemies, and Charlie Dalton knew it. This Charlie Dalton who at first seemed to be a weak imitation of Bodan Kozak now stepped forth to reveal himself to be equally reckless and equally dedicated to my destruction.
And so, while the rest of the boys obediently walk around the courtyard struggling to discover their own true walk, and failing because there is no such thing, Charlie Dalton withdraws. He leans against a wall, his thumbs hooked into his pants pockets, looking on with disdain at what he considers our foolishness. On the possibility that he has suddenly regretted his "brain-scrambled teacher" insult, and wishes to escape punishment by returning to the fold, I invite him to participate, or at least to pretend to participate: "Mr Dalton, will you be joining us?" But Charlie has not changed his mind. He will not retract. His reply is the curt and dismissive, "Exercising the right not to walk." So be it! If he wants war, I'll give him a war he'll never forget.
And so although Bo Kozak remains in faraway London, or wherever, it seems to be the case that the Supreme Being has chosen Charlie Dalton to be Bo's replacement. I seem to be fated to be forever plagued with a Bo Kozak clone springing up wherever I go. Every Christ is condemned to find among his disciples a Judas who will betray him for thirty pieces of silver.
But to sum up the gains that have been made, the Menshi experiment has advanced my DPS project by teaching my students, all except Charlie, to become preoccupied with walking differently from others so as to avoid being accused of conformity. It has sent my students on a wild-goose chase to discover a way of walking that is uniquely their own. On the utterly frivolous and inconsequential question of how to walk, my students feel freer than they have ever felt before. At the same time, their attention has been drawn away from the fact that on important questions like whether they should become actors instead of doctors, poets instead of bankers, promiscuous instead of steadfast, they have unwittingly handed over the power of choosing to me. In other words, I enslave my DPS boys while making them feel like I am emancipating them.
No, the word enslave does not bother me. Why should it? I do want slaves, and I think that most boys want to be slaves, and so what I am struggling to create is a world in which everybody gets what he wants. OK, so maybe sheep and shepherd is a more genteel way of talking about it.
BEST POETRY-WORKSHOP HOMEWORK EVER
What do I want for my students? I want for my students what every teacher always wants from his students, that they become almost as good as him — but not better! Should a student ever be allowed to surpass his teacher, the student becomes arrogant, then moves from arrogance to disrespect, then climbs from disrespect to contempt. The arrogance and disrespect and contempt spread to the entire class. The teacher loses control. Life in the classroom becomes hell.
And so what do I want for my students in the realm of poetry? O, I am a lover of Walt Whitman! O, how I love the way he starts his lines with O's, and how he ends them with exclamation marks! And I do want my students to love Walt Whitman too. But I have never in my life gotten a single poem published anywhere, not even in the Welton Annual, not even when I was editor of the Welton Annual. O, not even when I composed in the style of Walt Whitman! And so I will not tolerate any of my students publishing any of their poems anywhere.
How do I stop them? I furnish them with a traumatic experience writing poetry, on the expectation that it will deter them from ever trying it again. I assign as their homework the writing of a poem which is to be read out in class. This is sure to work, because they have never written a poem before, because a poem is expected to treat of personal emotions, which they are sqeamish to discuss, and because the assignment includes public speaking, which will afflict them with stage fright.
The poetry class does come off wonderfully. Only three students are called to read, which incidentally credits my poetry-workshop period with the sort of ultra-high average Passivity Index that only an elite few teachers in the world are able to match.
First of the three to read is Knox Overstreet, and wouldn't you know — he writes of his love for Chris Noel. Knox is embarrassed, he reads his 21-word creation reluctantly and haltingly.
The class snickers and laughs at him. As he finishes, he crumples his sheet of paper into a ball, ready to be tossed into the trash.
He apologizes to me, personally, and calls his poem stupid: "I'm sorry, Captain. It's stupid." I tell him — well what can I tell him? Can't tell him it's good, so I tell him it's a good effort. And that it touches on one of the most common themes of poetry — love. Damning with faint praise is what I want to accomplish, and Knox does feel damned. Charlie Dalton gives him a hearty pat on the back for trying, but that fails to lift him out of his humiliation. If he ever felt the least inclination to write poetry, I think I can safely say that I cured him of it.
Next I call on Hopkins. His poem is the six-word "The cat sat on the mat". Do I fly into a rage at his effrontery? Hardly! Hopkins is giving me exactly what I want — he is expressing contempt toward writing poetry. A+ to you, Hopkins, and thanks for your help! And next I call on Mr Death Anderson. He has been traumatized just trying to write his poem, and rightly expects that reading it aloud would be more traumatic still, and so he lies and says he didn't write anything, conveying to the class the very positive message that poetry writing is difficult and unpleasant, and avoidable without penalty.
Not a good idea to ask still other students to read their creations, was my opinion. A few among them might have written something interesting, and might be able to deliver it without trepidation, which sort of more positive outcome I did not want anyone to either experience or to witness. Three strikes and the poetry workshop is out.
These three students are sufficient to discourage all the others. I would say that this is the best poetry workshop that I have ever conducted, or that I have ever heard about anybody else conducting. It was a great relief to be left feeling secure that we had all set our sights below that of actually writing poetry, to the more realizable target of agreeing that we loved Walt Whitman.
And best poetry workshop not only in discouraging the writing of poetry, but also on Passivity Index, which I religiously calculate after every class.
The computation I performed considered not time spent on educational exercise compared to time available, but number of words spoken in the course of educational exercise compared to number of words that could have been spoken.
How many words could potentially have been spoken in that one hour from 10 to 11am? Well, a teenage boy can speak, comfortably and unhurriedly, at the rate of 200 words per minute. Twenty boys, then, have the potential of speaking 20 boys times 60 minutes times 200 words equals 240,000 words. How many words were actually spoken in satisfying my homework assignment? Well, Knox Overstreet's poem was 21 words long, and Hopkins's was 6 words, giving 27 words. Twenty-seven words spoken leaves 239,973 words unspoken, which gives a Passivity Index of 100 times 239,973 divided by 240,000, or 99.99%.
Not too bad at all! Any teachers around able to rack up a higher Passivity Index than 99.99%? I thought not! Bow down, all you wimps, before teaching competence greater than you can ever hope to acheive!
TODD ANDERSON PRIMAL THERAPY DURING THE POETRY WORKSHOP
Well, all right, perhaps in my enthusiasm to boost my own Passivity Index up to 99.99%, I was unfair. The rest of that poetry-workshop period was spent giving Death Anderson something like primal therapy, and which might be taken as getting Todd to create poetry, and so his spoken words have to be taken into account. From what I can recollect, it might have been something like 118 words, starting right from, and including, his denial that he had written a poem, each fragment pulled out of him by much coaxing and steering, something like:
I didn't do it. A yawp? Right, yawp. Yawp. Yawp. Yawp. A madman. A sweaty-toothed madman. Uh, I close my eyes and this image floats beside me. A sweaty-toothed madman with a stare that pounds the brain. His hands reach out and choke me. And all the time he's mumbling. Mumbling truth. Truth is like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold. You push it, stretch it, it'll never be enough. You kick at it, beat it, it'll never be enough to cover any of us. From the moment we enter crying to the moment we leave dying, it'll just cover your face as you wail and cry and scream.
One small slip — that in my effort to get Todd's creative juices flowing, I had to yell at him, and manhandle him somewhat, and I reflexively did things I had learned in Menshi's Transcendental Self-Defense class, which he taught alongside his other classes, things like sliding Todd's nose up toward his forehead, exceedingly painful I can tell you, a move originally designed for use against muggers and rapists, but which I was now finding useful in a poetry workshop. Menshi's teaching is never far from my mind: "If you control a man's face, you control the man; if you control a man's nose, you control his face." Very simple but very wise. Has gotten me out of many a tight spot. Some of Todd's tears that the class might have taken to be tears of joy or tears of creativity, just might have been tears of pain.
But the bottom line was that Todd's therapy session elicited cheering and applause from the rest of the boys, and rapt admiration from me. I had discovered hidden talent!
Of course I was not entirely pleased. Would the class take what Todd said to be poetry, and want to write the like, and try to publish it? And by how much was Todd's talking going to lower my Passivity Index? Well, let's get that unpleasant computation out of the way: 27 words spoken by Overstreet plus Hopkins, and another 118 words spoken by Death Anderson, gives 145 words of spoken created poetry. 240,000 potential words minus 145 spoken, gives 239,855 unspoken, and which by the usual arithmetic works out to a Passivity Index of 99.94%. Drat! That's lower than I was hoping for, but in comparison to other teachers, I may still be leading the pack. Have to try harder in the future, though.
And I should not have been surprised to have Charlie Dalton come up to me after class with his usual griping and nit-picking. "You must be aware," he says to me, "that Todd Anderson has emotional problems that require delicate handling."
"And you've seen that I do in fact handle these problems."
"I found your handling too much like professional wrestling, and too little like either poetry composition or psychotherapy," answers Charlie.
"But you saw the class clapping and cheering!"
"They would have clapped and cheered louder and longer had Todd pulled down his trousers and mooned you," says Charlie. "They would have clapped and cheered louder and longer if Todd had pulled out a lighter and set your tie on fire."
"Your point, boy, your point?"
"My point is that Todd Anderson, already pathologically beset by anxiety and fear, is reinforced for generating images of a sweaty-toothed madman strangling him, of truth affording inadequate protection against the world's dangers, of life starting with crying, progressing through wailing and screaming, and ending in dying. These are images that a responsible teacher would attempt to erase from every student's mind, but more especially from an unstable mind like Todd's, would attempt to replace with positive images of a secure world, a world in which truth afforded comfort and protection, a world which contained happiness in addition to pain, a world in which bold resolution was called for, and in which tearful cowardice was looked down on as unmanly."
"What I got out of Todd was poetry!" I retorted adamantly.
"I have a hard time distinguishing what you call poetry," shoots back Charlie, "from tripe. In some psychiatric institutions, talk like Todd's would be counted as paranoid schizophrenia, and would postpone an inmate's release, and would get him strapped onto a gurney and wheeled into the fry-your-brain-with-450-volts room. I am surprised to see you dignifying it as poetry. But whether it is considered poetry or not, it does not help Todd out of his problem — which is that nobody will befriend him, nobody will marry him, nobody will hire him — not until he stops crying and stands up proud and tall, and begins in every way to act like a man; not until he stops his talk about being strangled by sweaty-toothed madmen and not until he abandons his view of life as wailing and crying and screaming and dying. What you did just now was to shove Todd back down into the darkness in which he dwells, and was not to offer him a hand to lift him out into the light. To this day, I have never seen you injure a student as much as I have just seen you injure Todd."
Damn that Charlie Dalton! And damn that Bodan Kozak! And damned all the Charlies and Bodans in the world! And damn all the Death Andersons too! They all conspire to make a teacher's life hell.
THE STRANGE LOVE OF KNOX OVERSTREET FOR CHRIS NOEL
That any relationship existed between Knox Overstreet and Chris Noel was first brought to my attention when Headmaster Nolan summoned me to his office and showed me a copy of Noel's petition for a restraining order prohibiting Overstreet from being within one hundred yards of her home and one hundred yards of her school, and within her range of vision anywhere. The petition accused Knox Overstreet of sexual assault, harassment, stalking, and causing emotional distress. Chris Noel was portrayed as having been traumatized by Knox Overstreet's persistent and irrational and illegal behavior, and as becoming preoccupied with fear of further harassment and attack, and as fearing for her safety. The judge had already issued a temporary restraining order and had set a hearing date one week hence to consider issuance of a permanent restraining order. The Noel legal team had forwarded a copy of the petition to Headmaster Nolan with the request that Nolan participate in bringing Knox's behavior within the law, and to go even farther by bringing it within civilized norms. When Nolan had spoken to Knox together with his parents about this petition, Knox had alleged, among other things, that he had been encouraged in his conduct by my teaching of Carpe Diem.
First Two Contacts: Greeting At The Door and Telephone Call
The Noel petition alleged that Knox Overstreet first met, and immediately formed an unreasonable and unencouraged attachment to, Chris Noel when she answered the door of the Danbury residence where Knox had been invited as a dinner guest. During this dinner, Chris had been seated beside Chet Danbury, the only offspring of the Danbury family, and who was the boyfriend of Chris, and the unofficial betrothed as well. Knox had not been seated near the Chris-Chet couple, and had no direct conversation with either Chris or Chet throughout the meal. Immediately after dinner, Chris and Chet had retired to the home's recreation room on a lower floor, and Knox and Chris had not seen each other again that evening. Chet felt uncomfortable with Knox during dinner on account of Chet preferring to talk about football whereas Knox discoursed primarily about his career path toward law.
The second contact occurred when Knox telephoned Chris for an unknown reason, and as this occurred in the middle of Chris and Chet contacting their friends to invite them to a party at the Danbury residence, Chris immediately invited Knox to that same party, and immediately terminated the conversation, her motivation for the rapid termination being to preclude Knox broaching his reason for telephoning, which she had feared might be to ask her on a date. Chris's invitation to Knox to attend the Danbury-house party did not constitute an invitation to a closer relationship, as the party was to be large, and Chris would be cohostess and her boyfriend Chet would be host, and in any case the custom at parties in their circle of acquaintances had been for invitees to bring their own dates, although the telephone conversation had been too brief for Chris to have reminded Knox of this custom. Although Chet had not looked favorably on Knox being invited, he agreed to view it as an expression of minimal politeness, made necessary by the friendship between the Danbury and the Overstreet parents.
Headmaster Nolan interjected in the middle of my reading of the Noel petition to say that the testimony of Welton boys to whom he had spoken supported the notion that Knox had nourished his infatuation for Chris by means of the Carpe Diem incantation, as for example when mustering courage to telephone Chris, or when speaking of his intention to win her love, or when setting off for the party to which Chris had invited him.
Third Contact: Knox Overstreet Sexually Assaults Chris Noel
The Chris Noel petition further alleged that at the Chet Danbury party, guest Knox Overstreet inappropriately squeezed himself into the middle of a couch between a couple who were passionately kissing on his right, and Chris Noel who was asleep on his left. Knox started by deriving voyeuristic pleasure by examining the kissing from up close, even when the girl's body was pressed against his chest, and his arm seemed to be wrapped around her shoulders, so as to make it seem as if Knox was participating in a threesome. Eyewitnesses were unanimously of the impression that Knox was deliberately arousing himself sexually by his close attention to the kissing couple before turning his inflamed passions to the sleeping Chris.
The petition further alleged that the lyrics of a song that that was playing at the time added to the atmosphere of immorality and dissipation that stirred up Knox's hormones to the degree that he invoked the assistance of the Creator, as if steeling himself to perform some dishonorable act.
The petition quoted eyewitnesses as saying that Knox uttered words in an unknown language, and which utterance gave the impression that he was further steeling himself for the performance of some act that required the prior suppression of conscience, and which mysterious utterance was immediately followed by Knox beginning to stroke the sleeping Chris's hair. Witnesses expressed astonishment at Knox seeming to be driven by an urge so irresistible as to render him indifferent to being observed by other partygoers, and oblivious even to Chet Danbury, Chris's longtime boyfriend and a football star noted for his explosive temper, sitting only a few feet away.
To everyone's increasing astonishment, the utterance of the mysterious incantation was also quickly followed by Knox leaning down over Chris and beginning to kiss her, but which violation of Chris's honor was halted by Chris's awakening in a state of shock and demanding to know what Knox was doing, and by one of the onlookers informing Chet, "He's feeling up your girl!"
The fiery-tempered Chet was not long in himself demanding "What the hell are you doing?", and in moving to rescue Chris from the sexually-perverted Knox, leading to Chris's fear that Chet's righteous indignation might lead to some infraction of sports etiquette which could get him suspended from football, and for that reason reminding him to moderate his punishment of Knox with the words "Chet. Chet, don't!"
Chet's response was accordingly limited to the minimum needed to stop the advances of the sex-crazed Knox, and to ensure the safety of Chet's beloved, and ended with Chet admonishing Knox in words calculated to guide him to the path of righteousness. All eyewitnesses, and especially Chris, admired Chet's firmness but more especially marvelled at his restraint, which the football players among them to a man agreed that they themselves, if placed in a similar situation, would have been incapable of exercising. That is pretty much all I remember the Chris Noel petition for a restraining order saying about the sexual touching of the sleeping Chris Noel by Knox Overstreet.
Fourth Contact: Knox Overstreet Stalks Chris Noel
And then the Chris Noel petition went on to complain about the Knox Overstreet stalking of Chris Noel by first alleging that everyone had assumed that Knox would have himself been traumatized by having been caught in his nefarious act, and publicly chastised for it to boot, and would have been ashamed to present his face to the victim of his assault, but so demented had he become that his craving for Chris Noel was only inflamed by his humiliation, and he threw himself at her with the recklessness of a soul writhing in hellfire.
The petition stated that for Knox to communicate with Chris in any way would have been inappropriate enough, and unwelcome, and repugnant to Chris under any circumstances, but that he nevertheless did approach and harass her, and chose the most inappropriate venue imaginable to do so, requiring him to trespass on the property of a school in which he was not enrolled and to accost Chris in a tightly-packed public place, and that these were the actions of a madman.
And so Chris is stunned to see Knox bearing down on her while she is at her locker, and is immediately overwhelmed by terror as the memory of being groped in her sleep two days ago sweeps over her.
The petition alleged that Chris looked away and down in the vain hope that Knox would pass by without recognizing her. She gripped the door of her locker for support in her sudden weakness. But Knox failed to understand that she was recoiling from him in revulsion, and he dared to address her — her, who was the victim of his most recent molestation.
The petition alleged that her eyes repeatedly refused to gaze at him — so loathsome was the sight of him to her, and she thought to awaken him to some sense of propriety and decorum by demanding his purpose. Knox answered her by saying that his intent was to apologize, but without recognizing that the announcement of an intent to apologize is not the same as apologizing, and without having the integrity to even name what exactly he is apologizing for, but referring to it only obliquely as "the other night". Knox intended to apologize not for anything he did "the other night", he intended only to apologize for "the other night". Chris could not believe she was hearing words so imbecilic being offered her by way of apology and with hope of forgiveness.
Knox offers her flowers, than which nothing could be more moronic. She did not want flowers from this creep. She did not even like flowers. How dare he stereotype her as a typical female with some typical attraction to flowers who would be dazzled by their colors and intoxicated by their smells into thinking, Oh, how lovely! while forgetting that they were being handed her by a pervert who had groped her in her sleep. How glad any pervert would be to erase his guilt by handing over a bunch of flowers to his victim so as to be able to continue practicing his perversion on her forever. And as she was about to go to class, what did he imagine her doing with these flowers? Leaving them heaped on the desk in front of her during the entire class? Asking the teacher for a vase with water for them? Have every other student in the room view her as bringing flowers to class for the purpose of ... what? For the purpose of intensifying recollections of her lover? Is that what she wanted her classmates to remember her for — bringing aphrodisiacs to class? And he had brought a poem, too! Oh, my God! She already has a boyfriend, Chet, who is thankfully not insane, and who thrills her by scoring touchdowns before cheering crowds, but this pervert thinks to entice her with some childish scribbling! If I have to listen to his so-called poem, she thinks, I'm going to puke. She recognizes that standing before her is a force that cannot be reasoned with, cannot be shamed, and can only be fled, and so she runs.
But the madman, whom nothing will deter, who is incapable of taking No for an answer, runs after her.
Chris frantically looks around for assistance. Will anybody help her against the madman? The corridors are empty. Everybody is already in class. She has to shake off the madman herself.
She threatens him with Chet — Oh, if only Chet were here, he would know what to do! But instead of quaking in his boots, the madman upchucks love. This stranger to whom the longest sentence that she has ever spoken before today was "Knox, what are you doing?" and to whom the longest sentence that she has spoken today was "Knox, what are you doing here?" — loves her! What a profound and meaningful love that must be, and eternal too, no doubt!
But at least Knox accepts responsibility — but not for being a criminal or a pervert, only for being a jerk. And he can't shake off the delusion that flowers have magical powers, and that all she has to do to develop amnesia for the sexual assault, and to become enamored of him, is to walk away with his flowers. Women are such simple beings, after all, so easily entranced by baubles, bangles, and bright shiny beads.
No to your disgusting flowers, no to your infantile poem, no to loathsome you, and off she runs. Once inside the classroom door in front of her, she will be safe. A few straggling students make their appearance, rushing to make it to class before the bell.
One glance confirms that she has left the leech behind, and she is inside. But the closed door is nothing to the leech. The teacher on the other side of that door who may have already begun addressing the class — she matters nothing as well. The students sitting listening to the teacher, what do they matter? My love reigns supreme over them all, takes precedence over all their interests and activities, so reasons the madman. The madman attacks the door.
Mirabile dictu! — the teacher does not order him out of her classroom, she is bent over papers on her desk, and the students are not disrupted, they are just lounging around. The gods are on Knox's side. And now comes the poem! The apology hadn't work, the flowers hadn't work, the poem was the ace up Knox's sleeve, the mighty force held in reserve, now deployed. But not mailed to her, not handed her on a piece of paper to be read by her when she has time and is in the mood and has privacy. No, this poem is going to be read to her aloud, in public. This poem is so good that everybody will be on Knox's side after they hear it — so, Chris's lawyers suppose, goes the thinking of the madman.
From Chris's point of view, the event is not so auspicious. Report of this poetry reading will spread through the entire school. For the rest of their lives, everybody in her school will remember her as the girl who was amorously entangled with a lunatic. This greater asshole than she ever imagined could exist had attached himself to her and was destroying her reputation and ruining her life.
And then out pours the so-called poem — a two-liner! Wonder how long it took the idiot to write? And what precious thought does he wish to enshrine in his words? Why it is that he wants to touch her! Grope her, he means. Grope her whether she consents to being groped or not, whether she's even conscious or not. The creep might even be a necrophiliac, and be indifferent to whether he's groping her dead or alive. That's what the creep comes to tell her, and to tell the whole world besides — that if she lets him grope her, he will be transported to paradise! If there had been a hole in the ground, she would have crawled into it.
All of the above, then, is Chris's view of Knox's love, at least as it has been written down by her lawyers in their petition for a restraining order against Knox. That is the story that persuaded a judge to grant a temporary restraining order. Those are the allegations that will be weighed in the hearing for a permanent restraining order.
Triumph of the Will: No Means Yes
However, the view expressed in the restraining order petition is outrageously distorted. What really happened is this.
Knox comes to me right after Chet Danbury beat him up at the party, supposedly for "feeling up his girl", deeply dejected and inclined to blame. "It was following your Carpe Diem advice that emboldened me to give expression to my love for Chris. The result is that I have been humiliated and disgraced and have lost her forever."
"Not so fast, my young friend" says I. "Let us review the situation and see if it cannot be redeemed."
Knox's view was that if Chris had wanted to sleep unmolested during the party, she could have gone up to one of the Danbury's several guest bedrooms, and bolted the door. But she chose instead to nap on a couch in a room full of drunken jocks. That couch was Chris's selection of a trysting spot, and as she was settling down in it, she raised her head and looked directly at Knox who was standing across the room, and their eyes met and locked, and megawatts of electricity surged through their bodies. And that couch was perfect because it already had a couple on it engaged in frenzied necking. With one necking couple and one sleeping girl, there was no room on that couch for anyone else — which was exactly what Chris wanted. When Knox came and squeezed in, Chris initially lifted her head to make room for him, and then laid it down against his hip, but soon rolled over on her back, her head resting on his lap, feigning sleep. Knox then stroked her hair, but only because she had placed her hair near his hand to be stroked; he touched his lips to her forehead, but only because she had placed her forehead within reach of his lips to be kissed.
Moreover, as Chris was pretending to awaken after he had touched his lips to her forehead, Knox could see her smile, and when she opened her eyes and saw Knox looming over her, her gaze was welcomingly. But the magic moment was shattered as one of Chet's Neanderthal drinking partners shouted "He's feeling up your girl!" and she realized that all eyes were upon her, including Chet's eyes, and she panicked. Her smile was replaced by a look of terror, but it was terror of Chet's violence at her infidelity, and not terror of Knox's affection.
For a moment, Chris expresses guilt when she says, "Now, Chet, I know this looks bad..." and of course it does look bad, and it looks bad because it is bad. But as Chet reaches over the back of the couch and lifts Knox up in the air about to throw him to the ground, Chris's orientation shifts from cringing in guilt to defending Knox, her new beloved, and that is where her attitude forever remains, locked in loyalty to the Homo sapiens who is being attacked before her, and against the Homo neanderthalensis that is doing the attacking. "Leave him alone. Chet, no! You'll hurt him!" These are not the cries of a cheerleader protecting a football player from getting himself suspended.
Chris begins clawing at Chet's back, trying to get him off Knox, "Chet, stop it! Leave him alone! Chet, stop it!" But Chet is impervious to her cries, savaging Knox in his caveman fury, expressing himself in occasional single-word expletives: "Damn! Bastard!"
And then, for a moment, Chris loses awareness of the apoplectic Chet, and sees only the groaning Knox lying on the floor in front of her, and she addresses herself only to him: "Knox, are you all right?" and she cradles him in her arms, almost, and which reanimates Chet's jealous rage, aware as he becomes at that moment that he has lost her. And — infuriated at Chris's clinging to Knox — Chet commands, "Chris, get the hell away from him!"
But the effect of Chet's harsh command is not to produce the meek compliance that he expects, but is rather to incite Chris to steal from him his role of the most enraged person in the room, and so now Chris screams with the fury of a she-bear defending her cubs, "Chet, you hurt him!" and as she does so, she leans forward so as to press her breast against the back of Knox's wrist. Knox is convinced that it was deliberate. That breast-press is her answer to Knox's kiss on her forehead. "Good!" answers Chet, but not to the breast press, which he has probably failed to notice, but rather to his having hurt Knox, which vicious affirmation only weakens his cause all the more — but it is too late for him no matter how he answers. Chris has lost her heart to Knox, and anything that Chet says will be held against him. Knox begs her forgiveness for having triggered Chet's temper tantrum, and a tearful Chris grants that forgiveness with all her heart. In Knox's view, his kiss on her forehead, answered by her breast press against his wrist, magically unites them for life with the full solemnity of a cathedral wedding.
"Well," I observed after hearing Knox's version of the story, "you have fully convinced me that Chris has fallen in love with you, at least at an unconscious level; however, you can't tell anybody else that same story because no one will believe you.
Sigmund Freud taught us that there are no accidents. Of course you didn't end up on the couch with Chris by accident, of course she unconsciously enticed you to her couch, but if you say that, everybody will think you are crazy, because nobody takes the trouble to read Sigmund Freud. And of course her pressing her breast against your wrist was not an accident, it was a pledge of her love, it was a move carefully planned and executed by her unconscious mind, but nobody will believe that either because nobody has read Sigmund Freud's writings on the unconscious. In the war of words, the ignorance of the masses leaves you utterly without defense."
"Thanks for your uplifting analysis. So, next thing to look forward to is my expulsion from Welton!"
"No, the story of your having groped a sleeping girl can be expunged from your record, totally and permanently — by having Chris immediately fall in love with you on the conscious level and appear hanging on your arm as your devoted and inseparable companion everywhere you go. That display will be Chris's testimony that you have done nothing dishonorable against her. However, there are obstacles to overcome. If I remember correctly, Chris opened the door for you when you arrived at the Danbury residence for dinner — in other words, Chris Noel seems to already be an embedded member of the Danbury family. And I think I recollect, too, that Chet is a football hero, so deeply immersed in football culture that he refuses to doff his letter-bearing football jacket even in a broiling room, and that Chris is a cheerleader, and therefore immersed in the football culture along with Chet. A bond based on such solid foundations as these is not easily broken. And remember that she did not flee Chet Danbury's house with you after what you consider to be your cathedral wedding, she probably spent the rest of the night humping Chet in his bedroom, and maybe even while swinging from a chandelier, of which I bet a rich lawyer's house has more than one. In other words, it is you that she loves unconsciously, but the chains enslaving her overt behavior to the past need to be broken."
"But you were just now pointing out that a bond as strong as that between a cheerleader and a football hero, especially a cheerleader that seems almost to live with the football hero's family, is not easily broken."
"You forget that I am a master of breaking what seems unbreakable."
"I didn't know that."
"You will begin to redeem your reputation by freely admitting to anyone that you kissed Chris's forehead, you simply spin it as Prince Charming kissing the forehead of Sleeping Beauty. Don't forget to always mention the forehead, because otherwise people will find it more titillating to imagine that you stuck your tongue down Chris's throat as she slept. And don't ever mention that you were practically strangers at that time. People will come to assume that at the time of the forehead kiss you were already an item. And definitely forget the line about Chris enticing you into a couch tryst — let them see her clinging to you in the present, and you won't have to go through a point-by-point refutation of all the accusations against you in the distant past. And now comes the easy part — getting her to fall openly in love with you and openly out of love with that cretinous Chet Danbury."
"You mean the hard part?"
"Impossibly hard when you don't know how; ridiculously easy for me. The situation with which you are faced is Chris having decided to give you her love, but being terrified of Chet's anger and violence, and perhaps also of the disapproval of the Noel and Danbury families for breaking off the relationship. However, Chris is able to look ahead to the time when you and she pull up to a gas station in your chauffeur-driven limousine, and the gas jockey who fills 'er up and checks the oil and washes the windshield will turn out to be Chet! Yes, Chris is already becoming aware of the difference between brawn and real power, and she is learning to distinguish who has the brawn and who has the power. She is already fully confident that Chet has the brawn, and she is searching around for the proof that you have the power. She is waiting for you to demonstrate to her your overwhelming Triumph of the Will." And here I was reminded of a poster in my scrap book, and which I fetched and showed Knox.
"Here is a graphic depiction of what you need to prove to Chris — that you are capable of Triumph of the Will. That your will is absolute and unbending. Ruthless and pitiless. Indomitable and fearless. Yes, even despotic and tyrannical. She must be shown that everybody bends to your will — starting with students who give way to you, teachers who prostrate themselves before you, and even she herself who in your presence becomes your absolute slave.
"You will proceed by going to her high school, and actually barging into it, and in so doing, you will trample the rules of propriety, you will trample on the law of trespass. You will show your will triumphing over the teacher's intention to address her class, and over the students intention to learn. All these are as nothing in the face of your inexorable will. And you will crush Chris's will alongside everybody else's, by forcing her to accept a handful of broken and wilted flowers that you snatched up from the roadside, and forcing her to thank you for them as if they were expensive and fragrant roses, and as if they were exactly what she wanted to carry into her algebra class with her. And then, in front of her teacher and her classmates, you will read her a poem of your own composition which expresses your intention to grope her body. Your poem must be of poor quality, even trite, because if it is a good poem, then she will listen to it because it is good, but what you need to train her to do is to listen to crap, simply because you will it. In other words, you will demean her, humiliate her, and disgust her, and for which she will love you as she has never loved anyone else before.
"Do not fear that any part of this plan might be a mistake. You will be guided by ancient wisdom. You will be following in the steps of Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew, or in Kiss Me Kate, which many people mistake as showing a technique for subduing a shrew, but which in reality depicts the steps every man must take in order to win the love of any woman.
"You must force this on her no matter how much she resists, as her resistance will be merely a test of your determination. And no matter how violently she protests and how energetically she attempts to escape you or to moderate your demands, you must always remember that she is only testing your will, and you must teach her that your will only hardens upon meeting resistance.
"What you must believe, then, is that whenever a girls says No, she really means Yes. You have seen this great truth portrayed a score of times in movies. A man forces a woman into a kiss. She struggles violently to escape. She beats him with her fists. She kicks and screams. But the man understands that he is being tested, and he does not relent, and the end is always the same. The woman first stops struggling, and then she wraps her arms around the man's neck, and then she begins to return his kiss, and from that moment on, she is his forever. She loves him because she has tested him and discovered that he is capable of Triumph of the Will."
And so that is what I told Knox, and he listened attentively enough, and it seemed went out and performed exactly as instructed — but nevertheless came away disappointed that Chris had not thrown herself into his arms, had not thanked him profusely for his flowers, had not admired his poem. "Probably," I explain to him, "Chris's terror of Chet was too profound. But she did give signs of love — from your description, for example, she repeatedly spoke your name. She could have said, for example, 'What are you doing here?' but she said instead, 'Knox, what are you doing here?' which is more intimate and more encouraging. 'Knox, don't you know that if Chet finds you here, he'll kill you?' 'Knox, you're crazy.' 'Knox, I don't believe this.' Every time she said 'Knox', she was declaring 'I love you'! And even continuing to speak to you at all expressed love. If you disgusted her, she would have walked away from you without uttering a word."
It is not surprising that Knox's disappointment turned into clinical depression when he was served with the temporary restraining order, and his fury at me for having plunged him into such deep disrepute knew no bounds. However, I tell him to give nature time to work her course. "You cannot plant an acorn in the morning and expect to have an oak by noon."
"But the men in the movies kissing the struggling women — they did not have to wait for the acorn to grow into an oak!"
"Movies speed everything up," I reassured him. They articulate great truths, and are guilty only of compressing events into an unrealistic time frame. It may take a year for the woman kissed against her will to kiss back."
"Oh, so the optimistic view of my future is that the restraining order will be withdrawn after a year?"
"I was only contemplating an extreme example," I assured him. "But I would not be surprised if results arrived a bit sooner in your case. Go to your dorm, spruce yourself up, and come with all your DPS friends to Midsummer Night's Dream tonight. Relax and enjoy yourself, ban worry from your mind, and have faith in the future."
And how prophetic my words proved to be! Chris stalked him to his dormitory that very night, intercepted him with all his DPS friends just as they were walking out a side door on their way to Midsummer Night's Dream. When Knox first laid eyes on her, he was struck with terror, imagining for an instant that the restraining order had not been enough for her, and that she had come for some greater revenge, but as he approached her and began speaking to her, he quickly grasped that it was the opposite — that she came out of love, was driven toward him out of an inability to be without him.
Richard Cameron was the first to notice the blonde babe that has entered the dorm building against the rules, but as he has never seen Knox's Chris, he does not know that this is her.
Knox Overstreet addresses her, and for the first time the DPS boys understand why he has been so infatuated. But Chris's behavior is in every way inappropriate. Had she arrived five seconds later, Knox would have already been out the door, and she would have missed him without knowing that she had missed him. She doesn't know where his room is, and as girls aren't allowed in the dorm, she can't just wander the halls looking for him. What plan would she have followed had she not run into Knox at that very moment — just standing in the foyer until providence intervened? On top of everything, she has a ticket for the Welton production of Midsummer Night's Dream, which is about to begin, but seems unconcerned about arriving at the theater on time. She is clearly in a hypnagogic state — passive, disoriented, helpless — and waiting for her master to appear on the scene and take over her life. And what about that restraining order? How is he supposed to stay away from her when she insisted on throwing herself at him?
Stephen Meeks is fascinated by the sight of Knox and Chris together, and Charlie Dalton has to return to drag him off to join the other DPS boys whom I am driving to the play. What Meeks overhears is Knox admonishing Chris for the inappropriateness of her appearing in the Welton dorm.
Chris makes a feeble attempt to show the unfairness of Knox's admonition — whereas he feels himself entitled to barge into her classroom, he does not allow her to step inside the foyer of his dorm, but this is just another test for Knox. He being the autocrat does have a right to intrude into her life, but she does not enjoy the reciprocal right. Knox shushes her, as he would a pet dog that he wanted to stop barking. But what exactly is Chris's position? That if Knox has a right to intrude into her personal space because he is infatuated by her, then she has a right to intrude into his personal space because ... because what? Because she is infatuated by him?
"I didn't mean to make a fool of you"? He actually says something that inane and expects it to be accepted? Well, yes, that is the prerogative of an autocrat.
Knox learns that she hasn't arrived to warn him that Chet is coming with murderous intent — she has already talked Chet out of that. Her plea to Knox is that he's "got to stop this stuff", but Knox has already stopped. One kiss on the forehead, plus one classroom invasion, have been so traumatic and so counter-productive that he has no intention of making any third attempt, and the poor girl seems to have forgotten that she has a restraining order against him which prohibits him from being anywhere near her. Why is she there telling him to stop when a court has already told him to stop? However, now that Chris stands in front of him, obviously in love with him, then Knox is emboldened to make a third attempt, and so he proclaims his love.
Poor confused Chris! — She seems to imagine that Knox has been proclaiming his love "over and over" when in fact he has only proclaimed it twice — once in the hall of her high school, and once more just now. Maybe Knox's words have been reverberating in her mind "over and over," and she has gotten the number of her own mental rehearsals confused with the number of Knox's utterances. She is right to notice that Knox doesn't know much about her, but this obstacle is too feeble for Knox to address — he does not need to know anything about her. What he already knows is enough, and what he already knows is that he wants to Gather Her Rosebuds.
Chris continues with her game of saying No, to further encourage Knox to demonstrate his Triumph of the Will. This time she says she has no feelings toward him.
And this time Knox condescends to contradict her — if she had no feelings toward him, she wouldn't have come to warn him about Chet. As Chet has been pacified, and as there is no warning about Chet to convey, Knox seems to have been infected with some of Chris's confusion as to why she has come. Chris then hands Knox another No — that their meeting must end here because she has to leave for the play.
But it turns out that Chris refers to the play to emphasize how anti-intellectual Chet is, and thus how unfitting a mate for her, which is again an invitation for Knox to negate their proposed separation by demanding that she come with him to the play. Chris notices that Knox does not propose that he be allowed to accompany her, nor that they go together. He proposes that she accompany him. In other words, Knox invites her to assume the subordinate role, which promise of a relationship of autocratic domination thrills Chris.
She continually circles Knox like a moth around a candle flame. She asserts that Knox infuriates her, but without acting infuriated. Just another instance of Chris saying No to express Yes. Knox knows to translate her claiming to be infuriated as her confessing to be in love.
Chris continues to demonstrate that No Means Yes: she repeats that Knox is infuriating, and yet her smile communicates that she is not infuriated, and she immediately beckons the supposedly-infuriating Knox to her, meaning that she agrees to go to the play with him, and probably more than that.
Knox immediately wraps his arm around her. At the play, all pretense falls away — Chris's No has turned to Yes, just like in the movies, and without having to wait for acorns to grow into oaks.
So, then, I am proven right once again. Whenever a woman says No, it means Yes. Before they will love you, they need to be shown that you are capable of Triumph of the Will. Just as I control, and win the love of, my students by humiliating and debasing them, so a man must control, and win the love of, a woman by humiliating and debasing her. How else to explain Chris having been groped by Knox in her sleep, watching him beaten for his groping, then being traumatized by his classroom-invasion-plus-sick-poetry-reading, only to come crawling to him hungry for his love? How else to explain the sudden withdrawal of her restraining order, and its successful hushing up?
I SAY FAREWELL TO WELTON ACADEMY
I've been fired before — more than once! — so now I'm fired again. Big deal! Nothing new, and it feels right. As a teacher, I was always playing a role. Fired, I'm back to the real me, the familiar me. This is my natural state, that of being an outcast and a wanderer, that of watching others busy-bee themselves around their institutional rituals, while I stand apart.
I know that Headmaster Nolan has taken over my class, and as I know perfectly well when that class meets, I deliberately select that very time to pretend to go and pick up personal belongings from the teacher's washroom whose door is at the front of the class. I know there isn't anything in that washroom to be picked up, but I go anyway because I want to attach a certain name to Charlie Dalton, a name that all the boys will remember for the rest of their lives, a name Charlie will remember for the rest of his life. I go with the intention of branding Charlie Dalton a Judas!
I have a choice of entering the classroom through either the front door or the back. The front door, on the right from the students' point of view, is closer to the washroom that I'm headed for (which is at the front of the class, and on the left), and so it presents me with a shorter distance to traverse through the classroom, and also avoids walking down the narrow aisles among the students. Also, as I will have to ask Nolan's permission to enter, we can speak almost face-to-face, instead of having to talk over the heads of the entire class. On the whole, then, coming in the front door offers the faster and less disruptive alternative. That's why I chose to come in the back door.
And the first thing I notice as I walk in that back door is that Charlie Dalton's seat is empty. Why isn't he here? Nolan gave him a choice: stay at Welton but accept getting caned; accept immediate expulsion, whereupon we won't be able to cane you, as you will no longer be a student. Charlie chose getting caned and staying, so why isn't he here? Did he absent himself because he knew I was coming after him to exact my revenge? But how could he have known? I didn't tell anyone. Ah, I forgot telepathy. I forgot the exceptional power of my transmission beam.
The second thing that stands out is that as Nolan continues his lecture, all the students attend to it, except for Death Anderson who follows me with his suffering-racked eyes, as usual looking like he's about to burst into tears. That boy will always find something to cry about. I wonder what's bothering him this time.
Pretending to have gotten all my stuff, I'm heading for the back door of the classroom, again the longer route out of the room, now a couple of seconds away from vanishing forever from the lives of everybody at Welton, when Death Anderson can restrain himself no longer and jumps out of his seat and addresses me, "Mr. Keating!" and my blood freezes over! I've always felt guilty about jamming his nose upward during our Poetry workshop, and having hurt him, as I had been taught to do to muggers in Menshi's Transcendental Self-Defense class in London. And now the chickens were coming home to roost — Todd was going to publicly accuse me of having tortured him!
But no, that's not what Todd has in mind at all; he's apparently forgotten it. What he does go on to say is, "They made everybody sign it!" Oh, brother! Is that all? What next? In the first place, nobody "made" anybody sign anything. Nobody punched Todd in the face, nobody cattle-prodded him, nobody pulled out his fingernails, nobody held a gun to his head, nobody attached electrodes to his testicles. They just offered him a pen, and told him to sign, and he signed, and now he pities himself for having been forced like some prisoner in the Gulag. What a wimp! And in any case, he seems to think he has done something wrong, when in fact everything in the statement he signed was true. Believe me — I got a copy, Welton was obligated to supply me with a copy, and I went over it with a fine-tooth comb, and I couldn't find a single misrepresentation or a single exaggeration. And in any case, Todd seems to think he has done me an injury by signing, when in fact he helped me get what I really wanted — to get fired. I didn't come to Welton to start a revolution, I came to Welton to get fired for trying to start a revolution. I never wanted to be a revolutionary, I only aspired to the lesser goal of winning the status of a failed revolutionary. I am what my Welton classmates of long ago called "a born loser".
And next Todd bursts out with "But is wasn't his fault!" He is trying to say that Neil Perry's suicide isn't my fault, but he's not good at stringing together long sentences. Will this idiocy never cease? Todd seems to think he can get my job back for me by saying that, but he doesn't realize that I don't want my job back. There is nothing on earth so horrible as standing up in front of a group of hostile boys, trying desperately to please them and to entertain them, while knowing that every last one of them yearns to be somewhere else, anywhere else but here. What agony is worse than trying desperately to seize control of a mob of boys, trying to tame them, to teach them to submit to leadership, while knowing that there is bound to be a Bo Kozak or a Charlie Dalton among them studying me, searching for my weak points, keeping lists of my slip-ups, plotting my destruction.
Todd finally does the unthinkable — he stands up on his desktop, and proclaims O-Captain-My-Captain! Nobody ever suspected him of being articulate. Anyway, sorry, Todd — too little, too late. Desktop walking and O-Captain-My-Captain reciting were useful when I was trying to fashion you boys into a Society, but now that that plan has fallen through, I have no further use for such gimmickry, and it disgusts me. And you too, Todd Anderson, you disgust me. Go off somewhere and have a nice cry, and when you've regained control of your emotions, come back and continue your study of J. Evans Excrement Pritchard — PhD — at the Welton Penitentiary.
And then comes the grand finale — against the frenzied protests of Headmaster Nolan, nine more boys clamber up on their desks and gaze at me lovingly, facing me as I stand at the back door of the class, their backs turned to Headmaster Nolan. Even Knox Overstreet joins in, though not Richard Cameron. And what greater gift could I ask? A clear majority of the class telling me that the public-health extremists who have been plaguing me all my life have been wrong, and that my standing or sitting wherever I pleased had been right. And also a clear majority telling Headmaster Nolan that they would rather have me at the front of the class telling them to tear out Pritchard, than have him at the front of the class telling them to read Pritchard. Is that a clear vote for academic freedom and academic excellence, or what?
So, then, maybe I'm not a complete loser after all. Maybe the mental telepathy and the grandiose-name-claiming and the subordinate-name-ridiculing and the altitude-of-delivery-amplification and the slue of legitimizing-incantations and the face-scrunching and the virus-implanting and the book-burning, and the Triumphing of the Will, and all the rest of it, really do work, and maybe the boys have as a result of all these techniques been placed in a hypnagogic trance from which they cannot easily be roused. How else to explain their speechlessness combined with their zombie-like reenactment of this ridiculous ritual of standing up on desktops? What must this scene remind anyone of more than the scene produced by a stage hypnotist in a cabaret, where a stageful of cabaret patrons walk around clucking like chickens because the hypnotist told them to? If my boys all began clucking like chickens, could that make them any more comical than they already are?
The heart-warming message that the boys' final gesture broadcasts is that they prefer to live under some Captain or Führer who tells them that freedom is thinking whatever he tells them to think and is doing whatever he tells them to do, however bizarre and destructive might be those thoughts and those actions. And the boys' final gesture confirms for me that whenever a leader intrudes into a society intending to establish totalitarian order, but is ousted, he leaves behind followers who remember him fondly, and even dotingly.
But if these standing ten boys are the product of my labors, then I have been closer to succeeding than in the depths of my despondency I had begun to fear, and then my work isn't finished after all. With what I have learned at Welton to further guide me, I should be able to set up a best-ever Dead Poets Society at some other school.
I SAY FAREWELL TO CHARLIE DALTON
As I walk out of the doors of Welton Academy, undoubtedly for the last time, I sense someone overtaking me and when I turn to look, it is Charlie Dalton, who has caught up to me and is now walking beside me, but saying nothing. In fact, the impertinent twerp is whistling — my God, he's whistling the 1812 overture! That's what I always whistle. And that's my signal that I'm beaming on the telepathy channel, so maybe he's beaming me. For a split second I scan for his message, but get nothing clear. None of the boys are strong transmitters, which has never been a problem before, as their role has been to learn from, and to obey, me, but to transmit nothing. Better seen than heard applies to the whole lot of them. I interrupt his whistling with, "You weren't in class."
"Why should I be? I'm not a student."
"They expelled you?"
"I took my caning, so they had to keep me. But I subsequently withdrew. By withdrawing, I keep expulsion off my record."
"But you won't graduate, won't go to university?"
"The usual requirements for university entry are for usual applicants. In exceptional cases, the usual requirements are waived."
"And you are such an exceptional case?"
"Definitely! I've already been accepted by all four of the universities that I've contacted."
"And which were?"
"Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, and Yale."
"I didn't realize that bankers had that much pull."
"It has nothing to do with my father."
"What does it have to do with?"
"It has to do with the Constantinople Curriculum. The Constantinople Curriculum opens all doors."
This is typical Charlie — cryptic, always keeping me guessing, always leaving me more confused the longer he talks. Suddenly tired of his endless riddles, I recollect that all morning I had been primed to calling him Judas, had been rehearsing the accusation since last night actually, and so now my frustration triggers my outburst: "Judas!"
Charlie gives me a broad smile, and holds out his hand as if meeting me for the first time, and says, "Pleased to meet you, Mr Judas. My name is Christ," and pretending to mistake my confused silence as a request for elaboration, adds, "Jesus Christ."
I am stunned by his new impertinence, his treating as a joke something that is of the gravest concern, his latest tossing of a monkey-wrench into the machinery of my brain. But his face remains lit up with congeniality, his hand remains extended toward me. I reflexively take it, and find myself shaking hands with him, and we find ourselves breaking out in laughter together, as if we had been up till now acting on a stage, but the play being over, have now walked off the stage, and see each other unmasked for the first time, and laugh at the comedy which we have just finished putting on.
Charlie explains his page-ripping complicity
We resume walking, both for the moment silent, accommodating to our new relationship. "I don't understand you," I eventually say to Charlie. "When I told the boys to rip out the Pritchard page, they resisted. They knew it was wrong. They feared getting into trouble. No matter how much I yelled at them to rip out that page, they balked, but then you intervened to save the day for me — you ripped out your Pritchard page, and you waved that ripped-out page in the air for the world to see, and I thanked you, and which opened the floodgates, and soon everybody was following your lead.
"But later when I had the boys wandering around the courtyard each trying to find his own true walk, you first chewed me out, within the hearing of many of the boys, and then you refused to participate, and you refused ostentatiously, leaning against the wall, thumbs hooked into pants pockets.
"Why, then, have you been at times my strongest supporter, and at other times my strongest detractor?"
"I have never been your supporter. I realized within minutes of your first class that you posed a danger to the boys, and that they would need my protection. And by the end of that first class, I realized that protecting the boys against you would not be enough, that you were so dangerous that you would have to be removed, that I was going to have to get you fired."
"Then why were you the first to rip out that page?"
"Elementary principle of kompromat control. When you see someone you want neutralized doing something improper, you facilitate the improper thing he's doing, and all the while you collect evidence that he's doing it. When you urged the boys to vandalize, I supported you because your success looked like it would be enough to get you fired. Right after class, I reported your vandalizing the poetry books to Nolan, and he was appropriately horrified, but he was even more horrified at the scandal that firing you would create, and so he opted for doing nothing, hoping that the worst was over, that you would settle down and behave normally for the remainder of your contract, at the end of which you would be unceremoniously axed. And so I realized that I could not count on Nolan, but had to get you fired despite Nolan."
Having students search for their own true walk would not get you fired, which is why I didn't support it.
I solve the Nolan see-no-evil riddle
"Eureka!" I cried out. "That explains the mystery of the day."
"Not fifteen minutes ago, I walked through the middle of Headmaster Nolan trying to get Cameron to read the Pritchard page aloud. But Cameron was unable to, explaining that that very page had been ripped out of not only his own book, but out of every other book in the room. Cameron spoke in the passive voice, obviously concealing the hooligan who was responsible for such unnatural destruction. And so of course Nolan asks, 'What do you mean, They're all ripped out?', and just as Cameron begins to answer is where the miraculous takes place — Nolan cuts Cameron's explanation off. 'Never mind!' Nolan interjects, and he slaps his own book down in front of Cameron so that Cameron can read the Pritchard page from it. The miracle that I could not understand, then, is why Nolan did not want to hear Cameron's answer, but now I think I can guess, and I bet you can too."
"I sure can guess," answered Charlie. "Nolan has an ability which is prerequisite for anyone who wants to be a Headmaster — the ability to push evidence that his school is malfunctioning out of consciousness. By the time Nolan started teaching that class, he had repressed the memory of your having damaged all the textbooks, but as Cameron spoke, Nolan's memory suddenly revived, and he had to cut Cameron off because he did not want the class witnessing his receipt of evidence of vandalism."
"I couldn't have put it better," said I. "That's Nolan for you — occasionally taking the moral high road, but dedicating most of his energies to hushing up scandal so as to preserve the good name of Welton." We laughed together, feeling chummier because of our agreeing that Nolan was both inept and corrupt.
Charlie explains the page-swallowing riddle for me
"And" I tell Charlie, "I have another little mystery that has been puzzling me, and that I am sure you will also be able to help me with."
"While the students are busy tearing out their Pritchard pages, in stumbles Mr McAllister, upon which you ball up your ripped-out page, and stuff it into your mouth. McAllister leaves, I walk around collecting the ripped-out pages in my wastepaper basket, and you spit yours into the basket out of your mouth. What was that all about?"
Charlie laughs out loud. "I thought you would get that one, but I guess my message was too subtle."
"Can we suspend the insults for a time, like for the duration of this conversation?"
"I did that in a flash of inspiration. The act, as anyone immediately grasps, might be appropriate to someone destroying a piece of incriminating evidence by swallowing it. In my situation, however, such an act would accomplish nothing. In the first place, I was not about to swallow an entire page from a book, and with that ball of paper in my mouth, I would have proclaimed my guilt by being unable to speak. But even if I had swallowed it, the page missing from my book would still have testified against me, and the fact that every other student in the class was holding the same torn-out page in his hand, plus the unanimous testimony of all the other students as to what had happened — all this made it impossible to conceal the mass vandalism, as well as my role in it, from any investigator, and therefore, my act was entirely ineffectual."
"You confess to an ineffectual act?"
"I do," answered Charlie. "It was ineffectual in concealing the vandalism. But that was not its purpose. It's purpose was to send you a message, and with regard to that purpose, my act was effectual, or would have been if you hadn't been so dense."
"I remind you that you are trying to cut back on the insults."
"I wanted to send you the message that I was displaying myself doing something which would not work, so as to signal that I could see you doing the same. You could see that I was using a childishly-ineffectual method to cover up my vandalism, and I could see that you were using an array of childishly-ineffectual methods of creating an army of zombies."
"Childishly ineffectual? — No way! Why I almost succeeded. I would have succeeded, had it not been for you."
"You forgot that in every group God has placed a me for the protection of that group."
"Funny you should say that," rejoined I, "that's exactly how I saw myself — as protecting my boys from destruction, destruction by Welton."
As if he hasn't heard me, Charlie continues, "If I hadn't been there to protect the group, Richard Cameron would have done it, or even Knox Overstreet. I tell you that a me will spring up wherever he is needed."
I don't tell Charlie about Bodan Kozak — that would only encourage him to cling to his mad theory of a hero always springing up to protect the weak.
Charlie confesses his Nuwanda countermeasure
"You have no idea how hard I worked to undo each of your enchantments," continues Charlie in his confessional mood.
"After every surge in my power, I felt it ebbing," I confess in turn, "but I never suspected that you were responsible, and I even now doubt that you can take much credit."
"Permit me to give you an example," says Charlie. "You dubbed yourself O-Captain-My-Captain. The boys hesitated to address you with that, but then acquiesced, and so fell deeper under your spell. I had to teach them how foolish such self-inflating naming was, how little deserving of tolerance, let alone admiration, and yet I could not simply say as much and expect it to have any effect, as boys are little able to throw off enthrallment with the help of mere words. They need demonstration, they need to see a scene acted out, a scene that brings home to them the thought, 'Isn't that Charlie ridiculous!', which is what I want them to think, because the next stage in that thinking will be 'Isn't that Keating ridiculous in the same way that we have seen Charlie being ridiculous!'. And that is exactly the needed scene I was playing out for them when I announced my new name, Nuwanda, the time I brought the girls to the cave. I next imprinted my self-naming more indelibly into their auditory memory with a war whoop, and more indelibly into their visual memory by donning war paint.
"And whenever anyone forgot my name Nuwanda by calling me Charlie, as Cameron soon did, or as Neil did later on, I chastised him, as I had seen you chastise your students for the same error.
"And there's nothing like hyperbole to stamp in a message. The more fantastic my self-enhancement claim, the readier the boys became to examine other claims they encountered — yours — for the same defect of being fantastic. My painting a grandiose thunderbolt on my chest and expecting it to grant me power to drive girls crazy was no different from you claiming a grandiose title and expecting it to give you dominion over a group of boys. I didn't paint that lightening-bolt on myself to get a laugh out of my classmates; I did it to save them, and I did it to save you."
"Save me?" I cried out in disbelief, "I could have sworn you were working to destroy me."
"Save, destroy — it's all part of the same package," retorted Charlie. "By destroying the evil part of you, I save the good part. When I save you, I save you from yourself."
The destruction of Knox Overstreet and Chris Noel
"But why all your incessant talk of the boys needing your protection against my destruction? Don't I deserve credit for all the good that I did? Do you choose to forget how I took the beauteous Chris Noel out of the hands of the thuggish Chet Danbury, and handed her over to the deserving Knox Overstreet? Isn't that going to stand to my credit as at least one good deed?"
"I had my hands full hacking off so many of your tentacles that I let this one go" answers Charlie. "What you in fact have created for these two youngsters is a living hell. You have taught Knox the most self-destructive of beliefs — that his passions come first, and justly override propriety, ethics, morals, customs, convention, the needs and feelings of others. With this belief having been royally rewarded once, Knox will have integrated it as a permanent fixture of his personality. And relying on impulse and caprice is relying on the inconstant and the reversible. Today he loves Chris, a month from now he will find impulse and caprice making him love Lola, and then he will trample Chris to get Lola the way he trampled everything and everybody to get Chris. Carpe Diem condones it, you see. And then impulse and caprice will bid him tarry not so long with Lola as he tarried with Chris, and he will find himself falling in love once a week. All other evils follow in the path of this one great evil. Alcohol and drugs, failed marriage and failed career, the contempt of his peers and self-contempt — none of these has become a certainty for Knox, but all now loom as heightened probabilities. You have injured Knox Overstreet more than you have injured any other student at Welton.
"And," continues Charlie, "Chris was a cheerleader who was happy with her football-star of a boyfriend. Although Chet was aggressive toward other males, and not a lover of Shakespeare, we have no evidence that he was either duplicitous or promiscuous or violent toward women. Perhaps Chris could have had the good life with Chet that she is unlikely to have with Knox.
"Among the many lessons that a good teacher could have taught this pair is that whatever you see someone doing to others, you will sooner or later find him or her doing it to you. Knox turns reflexively to subterfuge to advance his acquisition of Chris. It will not be long before he lies to Chris to advance his acquisition of Lola. Lola will ask him 'What would happen if Chris found out?' and Knox will answer 'She won't know anything.'"
As Charlie talked, I felt a revulsion growing toward both Knox and Chris, and a sense that if I had injured them, it was deserved. I was an avenging angel. Avenging for what?
I confess this sensation to Charlie, my bitterness and rancor growing as I hear my grievances tumbling from my own lips. "These glamorous bitches have never had any use for me, nor I for them. They have always preferred the jock or the heir to the impoverished poet. Blonde babes are ever prone to choose the wrong men for their affection, and it is a pleasure to see them come to grief over their choices. That woman in Jörn Uhl — what can one feel for her but contempt? She chose her man, all agog with love. And then, oops, sorry! I made a mistake. Poor little me. Couldn't help it! How was I to know? Could I have the administration of the estate, please? And while she kissed her ne'er-do-well groom at the altar, weeping and laughing with joy, another man watched from a distance, the man to whom she had promised herself but abandoned when the flashier ne'er-do-well made his appearance, an upright man who stood watching with broken heart."
"Jörn Uhl?" asks Charlie.
"You know — the book you read me a passage from. The book which you gave me as a gift." But suddenly I realize that it was Bodan Kozak in London that had given me Jörn Uhl. Charlie Dalton was so similar in my mind to Bo Kozak that I was getting the two mixed up. I talk on as if I have not heard Charlie's query.
"Clarissa, is another example, not from fiction but from my own experience. How could she have been so cruel, and so short-sighted, as to dump me for Lionel, to whom others most often attached the adjective 'dapper'? So what if a poem of Dapper Lionel got published in the Times Literary Supplement — it was only one, and you can bet he won't be able to repeat the feat. He doesn't have time, surrounded as he always is by a bevy of admirers listening to his stories about famous people he claims to know, and to his jokes whose purpose is to make everybody look stupider than he is. He only gets away with it by moving from bevy to bevy, because if he talked to the same bevy too long, his repetition would soon get noticed. He really has only a small collection of stories, each well-polished, but deadly dull once you're hearing them for the third or fourth time. This is what that bitch Clarissa dumps me for? That relationship won't last a month, whereas she could have had me for all eternity.
"And what do I feel toward money-bags Knox Overstreet? Father is a Wall-Street lawyer. Sheds more money from his overstuffed pockets walking from one end of a room to the other, than I earn in a year. In a year, I might add, educating his semi-retarded son. Of course the rich are degenerate, and they will begin to discover what are the wages of degeneracy when they see their children grown.
"I welcome the destruction of Knox and Chris as I welcome the destruction of Welton and Chester and Cambridge. I have no use for any of them as none of them has any use for me. I deserve credit for uniting Knox and Chris not because it will bring them happiness, but because it will be a step toward the self-destruction of the degenerate ruling class."
The only comment that Charlie ventured to offer was, "Your reliance on the word 'degenerate' seems excessive".
Charlie Dalton's systemic solution
Well, onward we marched, Charlie and I, though not in step, and I continued to peel back the layers in my attempt to discover the real Charlie Dalton.
"Charlie," I began, "you are a walking contradiction. On the one hand, you portray yourself as a wise protector of a group of boys, but on the other hand, you are the weirdest and least mature among them, preoccupied with sex, pulling off zany stunts like demanding that girls be admitted to Welton in the school paper and answering the phone call from God."
"Oh, I can explain all that," answers Charlie nonchalantly. "In the words of Walt Whitman, there is method in my madness," and he pauses to look at me, grinning as if in expectation of a reply, and so I encourage him with, "Yes, go on."
"Welton has many defects, the most important being that Welton puts most of the boys most of the time into in a state of profound passivity, of aversion toward any expenditure of effort, or one might say puts them into a hypnagogic trance, and which state is antagonistic to learning. And that is what is meant by the charge that between the motives of educating and warehousing, Welton gives priority to warehousing.
"But another important defect, and the one that caught my attention and to which I for a time dedicated my efforts, is that Welton fails to protect its students from the brainwashing of crackpot teachers like yourself who view their power over students as an invitation to abandon the official curriculum and to dedicate their efforts to cloning themselves. If the cloner was Leonardo da Vinci or Victor Hugo, then his cloning would produce geniuses, but most often the cloner is a mediocrity or even a loser, and the products of his cloning are mediocrities and even losers."
No point reminding Charlie of the desirability of refraining from insult. He is hard-wired and incapable of change.
"My war against cloners was of two kinds," continues Charlie," ad hoc and systemic. The ad hoc war we have just been talking about — it consisted of my attacking you, undoing your brainwashing, discrediting you, getting you fired. My systemic war attempted to transform Welton so as to afford all students protection against all cloners for all time. I appreciated that my battle in the systemic realm was not going to produce immediate results, but I hoped to at least win some initial skirmishes in preparation for the great war in the years to come that would bring the ultimate victory of universal protection.
"To get down to specifics, what I thought that a boy most needs in his final years at Welton is a wife."
"You are a clown, after all, Charlie!"
"Consider what would happen if a married man had been in your class. You tell everybody in the class to Gather Rosebuds, and he goes home and tells his wife that his homework is to Gather Rosebuds, and the wife says ... can you guess what she says? She says 'Over my dead body, buster! If that pervert Keating gives you one more piece of advice like that — to go out and sow wild oats, or whatever botanical metaphor he happens to be using at the moment — you're going to drop his course, and I'm going to get Mr Lothario fired.'"
"Or suppose you're heading for a medical career, but the cloner encourages you to become an actor, and what would the wife say then? She would say, 'Not so long as there's a mortgage on the house, buster! Would-be actors spend their lives waiting tables, and the reason they don't worry about mortgages is that they live in rat-infested garrets, and they drink alcohol and do drugs, and taking a vow of poverty and dissipation was never part of our marriage contract.'
"You see what I mean? The wife pulls the husband toward stability and responsibility and achievement, and at the same time relieves his loneliness.
"Admittedly the high-school sweetheart is not a wife, but even at her tender age she will see that the Gathering Rosebuds edict means promiscuity and she will oppose it, and she will see that even though she doesn't have a mortgage to pay down, she does aspire to own a house, and so will veto a career in acting or poetry. Boys need girls because girls are more mature, more responsible, more disciplined, and smarter. Boys are always susceptible to being led, but they should be given a choice between being led by a girl with whom they happen to be in love, or being led by a crackpot teacher intent on cloning himself. And so the best long-term protection for Welton boys would be Welton girlfriends, and the closer that the girlfriends come to playing the role of wives, the stronger would be the boys' protection against cloning mediocrities masquerading as teachers."
"And what about the welfare of the future Welton girls? Have you given any thought to that? Do you see them more as concubines or as baby-sitters?"
"I confess that I have given them no thought. My preoccupation has been to save Welton boys. But I do not propose to do that by sacrificing Welton girls. I assume that coed education can bring mutual benefits. If it could not, then I would revise my plan.
"But to return to my seeming preoccupation with sex and zany stunts, all were the carrying out of my plan.
"I did at every opportunity turn the boys' minds to girls because I saw that girls would help solve the urgent problem of the cloning teacher. For example, when Stephen Meeks was being talked into joining the Dead Poets Society, and said "I'll try anything once," I piped in with "Except sex." Maybe that was a mistake. Sex shouldn't be something you're pressured into. But you understand what my intention was — to implant the view of sex as legitimate and normal.
"Or as you went into your book-destruction orgy, I was drawing breasts — not for my own edification, mind you, but to suggest to the boys around me that sex was an acceptable thing to be thinking of even in the middle of poetry class. And after Knox Overstreet had just met Chris Noel, and was moping around longing for her, I asked "Did you see her naked?" not so much for Knox's sake, as for the sake of all the other boys in the room — to set for them the example of a boy in love, and that love potentially including something like conjugal privileges.
"And, coming to realize that off-color comments were possibly less than was needed, I actually brought a couple of girls to the cave. Nice girls, mind you, but from the wrong side of the tracks, girls who chain smoked and who carried rye whisky with them and passed it around. Sweet girls, but not the kind you want to marry. Maybe I went too far in bringing them, but these Welton boys were frightfully inhibited, and submissive to the unnatural state of celibacy that Welton was imposing on them, and all I was doing was familiarizing them with what would be good for them to have more of — female companionship."
"This is beginning to sound a lot like Gathering Rosebuds," I pointed out.
"It's establishing relationships as a defense against oppression — big difference!"
"But that was all just preparatory to my two major initiatives, the first being my article in the school paper — the so-called Welton Honor, though I prefer to call it the Welton Dishonor — and after that my phone call from God.
You already know that I snuck my article into the Welton Honor, demanding the admission of girls to Welton Academy?"
"A brilliant piece of work," I answered. "The teachers talked of nothing else for a week. One thing that particularly struck us about it was that it was not a group effort, no other student was involved at any point, no other student even knew that you were doing any such thing, you seemed to have pulled it off entirely by yourself — the planning, the writing, and the sneaking it into print. You sought no assurance from your classmates that it would be a good thing to do, you sought no admiration from them as you were doing it."
"A conspiracy would have slowed me down, and why expose any other student to the punishment to follow? Attributing the article to the Dead Poets Society made it seem more mysterious, and if the article was ever traced to me, I was going to keep anybody else from getting blamed by saying that I made up the name Dead Poets Society."
"The article was fun," continued Charlie, "but I enjoyed receiving the telephone call from God even more!"
"Charlie, I have to tell you that that was a work of genius. Headmaster Nolan is hunting down the author of that article, but he's as grim as if he was tracking down a serial killer:"
In this week's issue of Welton Honor, there appeared a profane and unauthorized article. Rather than spend my valuable time ferreting out the guilty persons — and let me assure you I will find them — I'm asking any and all students who know anything about this article to make themselves known here and now. Whoever the guilty persons are, this is your only chance to avoid expulsion from this school.
"But right then," I narrate to Charlie, so that he sees the event from the teachers' point of view, "a telephone rings. Everyone is stunned. Such a thing has never happened before. There is no telephone in the assembly hall. But you nevertheless answer that supposedly non-existent telephone, and you answer it loudly so that the entire hall can hear you: 'Welton Academy. Hello. Yes, he is. Just a moment. Mr Nolan, it's for you.'
"The effect is absolutely stunning. Up to that point, nobody understands what is happening. It seems like there really is a telephone call, and yet it is impossible that there should be one, and impossible that one of the students sitting in the audience should be answering it.
"And then you hit them with the punch line: 'It's God! He says we should have girls at Welton.' That brought down the house. It was a public declaration that you were responsible for the Welton Honor article, and that you weren't in the least afraid to admit it. It was the event of the year at Welton, possibly even the event of the decade. Conceived and planned entirely by yourself, professionally executed with nary a soul to encourage or assist, your tie almost decently knotted for the occasion, a bicycle bell attached to your thumb — that performance should immediately have won you selection as the student most likely to succeed, and it should still eventually earn you a bronze statue erected in the main quad, showing you holding out the telephone to Headmaster Nolan, and the words inscribed in the plaque at its base, 'It's God! He says we should have girls at Welton.'"