Neil, Charlie, Knox and Steve, among others, are the boys attending Welton Academy, the boarding school with a legacy of having more than three-fourths of their students attending Ivy League Colleges post graduation. The school has four pillars – Tradition, Honour, Discipline and Excellence, which it holds in the highest regard and considers its pride. All students, without any exceptions, are expected to comply. The school is like a factory producing robots, with all students expected to conform to the traditions and follow without any second thoughts. That is until the new english teacher, John Keating, comes along.
Keating, himself an alumnus of the school, is the first adult to enter the school who talks to the boys in their own language. And in doing so, he instantly forms a connection with his class. Since the boys are all going through their own struggles, they warmly welcome a much-needed friendly adult guidance. Before him, all classes were taught in a very dry manner. The subjects were driven completely by theory. Even the students themselves, when we are introduced to them, their idea of fun is to have group study sessions. It’s like they do not know how to act like children. Act their age. They are all in a rush to grow up. Or so it seems initially.
In their first class with their new teacher, Keating teaches them to Seize the day. He stresses on the importance of out-of-classroom learning. That there is more to life than just their careers. That love and romance and friendship are what make life enjoyable. He warns them about the dangers of conforming and teaches each of them to embrace their individuality. And considering the fact that the boys stay in a boarding school, they do not have their parents to teach them daily lessons about life. Their constant adult influence are only their teachers. At least for the larger part of their life. Keating invests in each boy individually and guides each one of them to come out of their shell and embrace life.
To Knox, he is able to help him gain the courage and confidence to be able to ask out the girl he loves. To put himself out there. Charlie gets the strength to stand up for himself. To challenge the norm and be able to think for himself. Even if it means taking a stand against his teachers at Welton. Todd starts feeling open and comfortable enough to interact more freely with people. To deal with his insecurities that make him so quiet and reserved. And most of all, he teaches Neil to be able to follow his passion. But at the same time he also teaches him to do it the right way. That in order to follow his dreams, Neil must be brave enough to have the talk with his father about being more supportive of them.
Of course the big turning point of the movie is Neil’s suicide. It takes everyone by surprise because leading up to that point, Neil is shown to be the confident, friendly, popular boy that gets along with everyone. He even befriends the shy, new kid Todd. But the best thing about Neil, is how he does not force anyone else to be like him. He accepts that Todd is shy and an introvert. Maybe partially stemming from the fact that his brother was one of the best students of Welton’s history and he is doomed to live in his shadows forever. Yet, Neil provides a space for Todd to feel like he belongs in the groups without feeling forced to do things he does not feel comfortable doing. For instance, when Todd refuses to join the Dead Poets Society due to his aversion to reciting poetry in public, Neil lends him the option to not do so and still be a part of the group. Neil’s only worry in life is that he does not wish to have the future that his parents have laid out and planned for him. And he is not able to convince his parents to let him pursue his dream, which causes him to take the extreme measure. And I do think that his decision to commit suicide stems from the largely absent adult guidance and support that these boys had, which prevented them from being able to process their emotions the same way that a relatively more healthy mind would.
But after some time having gone by, when we remember this movie, we remember moments of the film with the boys having fun in the cave. Of them learning valuable life lessons in their classes with Mr. Keating. We see them slowly figure themselves out. Of actually living life, not just surviving it. We remember O Captain, My Captain. We remember Carpe Diem. And that, is the biggest lesson of them all.