When students leave for college, they often find an increase in opportunities to find out who they are and to be with people who share their same passions. Unfortunately, grade school students do not have as many avenues to express themselves in a manner that reflects who they are.
In a truly heartbreaking scene from Dead Poets Society, an elated Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) returns from drama practice only to find his disapproving father, Mr. Perry (Kurtwood Smith), waiting for him in his dormitory. He makes it abundantly clear that Neil is to quit the play immediately.
“But you deliberately deceived ME.” “You made a liar out of ME, Neil!” “I made a great many sacrifices to get you here, Neil.” “And you will not let ME down.” All Mr. Perry’s language is reflective of what matters most, himself. He interrupts, ignores, and dismisses Neil.
Neil did not heed his father’s warning. He went on with the show. Neil’s magnificent performance is unable to sway Mr. Perry’s perception of what his son’s future should look like. Instead, Mr. Perry plans on pulling Neil out of Welton Academy and enrolling him in military school, eventually to become a doctor.
“I am not going to let you waste…” Mr. Perry returns to the same language from the first clip, but Neil interrupts him, “I’ve got to tell you what I feel.” As Neil prepares to express himself for the first time to his father, he looks over at his mother and then back to his father. He comes to the realization that it does not matter how he feels or what he wants. His father will never accept him for who he is.
Neil retreats to his chair.
Tragically, Neil kills himself that night.
I spent a lot of my formal schooling trying to fit in. Don’t get me wrong, I think I had a great education, and one that opened a lot of doors. However, I never felt like I could completely be myself. There was a consistent fear of being different, which could lead to teasing, bullying, or harassment.
I think my teachers liked uniformity too. It was easier for them to have a clear picture of what a model student was and then try to mold everyone else into that image.
I hate to admit it, but I associated different with weird. Different interests and passions from my own confused me, so I dismissed them, and assigned labels to those who owned them.
It was not until I got to college when I started to realize the many paths that people walk to get to the same destination. I found myself intrigued by those with a different story than my own.
When I began teaching, I asked the most questions to students who were involved with activities, hobbies, interests, and passions that were foreign to me. I was so impressed that they could do/be something so unique and not care (or appear to care) what their classmates felt/thought.
I know it takes an incredible amount of courage for a middle school student to put themselves out there. Too often, they do so without the support of those tasked to provide it, educators.
Those who ignore school norms to stay true to who they are and what they love make education a wonderful space to work in. Educators have the power to inspire, embrace, and support the individuality of their students. The world would be a very dull place if everyone conformed to traditional expectations.