DEAD POET’S SOCIETY has been one of my favorite movies since I first saw it back in the 90’s. I’m pretty sure I must have rented it at home, though I can’t recall if it was my parent’s home during high school or my first college apartment. I’m positive I didn’t see it in the theaters, because I would have remembered bawling my eyes out in front of complete strangers.
That movie just spoke to me. The quiet desperation of trying to “suck the marrow out of life” while trapped in a stodgy world of rules and expectations. I think its message and story resonants with people even now, though our society has less strictures than what’s portrayed on the screen. Everyone feels the weight of expectations: from their parents, their peers, society, and even themselves. And many have experienced feelings of depression that bring the dark, smothering thoughts of suicide.
“But that’s ten more years,” Neil Perry says to his father when Dad informs him he’s going to military school and then medical school.
“Oh, for God’s sake, you make it sound like a prison sentence,” his father responds condescendingly. But for Neil, it was. And Dad had no understanding of the suffocating control he was exuding over his son. He could not comprehend the depression he was inflicting.
Trapped. Hopeless. Prison. Tomorrow only more of the same. These are the thoughts of a suicidal person. They will be better without me. No one will miss me. They’ll regret what they’ve done to me when I’m gone. Any combination of these and more run through the minds of the depressed, pushing them further into a black hole from which they believe there is no escape. Until, like Neil, they find the only escape they can conceive of: death.
On the outside, this is incomprehensible to some of you. Never having experienced the crushing oblivion, the mind-altering obsession, the hopeless staticness of situation that is depression, you will have difficulty seeing why any person would end life, when there is always hope for change. You see, in depression there is no hope for change. There is no hope for anything. There is no better tomorrow or clarity of thought or perspective. There is only the blackness eating at your soul.
As you can surmise, I know first hand what these thoughts are like. I’ve had them since I was a small child. There have been good periods in my life where the monster was kept at bay, but there have been many times where I fight the beast daily. And it’s not an easy fight. I can feel it creeping up inside me, and no matter how I try to suppress it, it gets its claws in my brain and my heart, telling me I can’t handle my life, that I’m a failure, that I’ll never be happy. It wouldn’t matter, either, if I had achieved success and had everything I want, the darkness would still claw inside. It’s part of me, and would find the chinks in my armor, the cracks in the wall, no matter what my life looks like to others. That’s just how it works.
I wonder where Robin Williams was in his cycle of alcoholism, drug addiction and depression when he made this movie. Did he have suicidal thoughts even then? The scene near the end, where he pulls the book of poems from Neil’s desk, his hands caressing the old volume, feeling the weight of Neil’s death pressing on him. As he cries in a beautifully poignant scene, I wonder if it was acting at all. Did he see himself in this lost boy? Or maybe someone he knew? His portrayal of John Keating was superb, but I will always wonder what thoughts were going through his mind while he worked on this movie.
It’s funny, but this is not the post I sat down to write. Like many writers, I set out to explain what this meant to me, but I didn’t really know the answers until I dived in. I thought I would discuss how moving it was, how I could see myself in both Todd and Neil, and how they were once my favorite characters, but this time through I was loving Charlie’s character even more. Maybe because I’m like Neil and Todd, so I need a Charlie to help me along. But as you can see, that isn’t what this post is about.
I did know how I would end it though. In the final scene, where John Keating (Robin Williams) walks into the class to retrieve his personal affects with the stern, domineering Mr. Nolan looming over the class, Todd tries to tell Mr. Keating that he doesn’t blame him for Neil’s death, despite the administration forcing them to say it was. Todd is shouted down by Mr. Nolan, but Mr. Keating knows. He knows the boys were forced. He knows the binds of tradition and pressure that have these boys on their pre-destined paths, despite his attempt to offer them more than an education, but also an opportunity to think for themselves. And though he knows, it isn’t enough for Todd. As they had done in class before, Todd stands on his desk. Mr. Nolan is incensed, trying to pull Todd down, but then others follow suit. Not all, but everyone who was truly affected by Mr. Keating’s teachings. Standing on their desks, a sign of solidarity, of honor, of thanks, of goodbye.
This scene has always made me cry, but even more so last night. It was my goodbye to a man who went through life quietly affecting us on the deepest level, though we never really knew it. Yes, some of his movies were simply silly and fun, and by that he was entertaining us, making us feel good. But many were both humorous and poignant. He brought us laughter and tears and truth. He showed us parts of life we want to ignore and characters who strive to make the world a better place through whatever small means they have at their disposable. He was a shining light of hope and goodness for us all to see.
I want a desk to stand on. I want to reach out a hand and say you meant something to me. Your work, your life, your spirit. You are inspiration and light, and when some of us live in a world of darkness, we need you and your message of tiny change and grand gestures and laughter and tears and healing. I want to say I will help you and I am there if you need me. But it is too late. All I can say is . . .
Oh, Captain, My Captain.