O Captain, My Captain! Inspirational teachers

O Captain, My Captain! Inspirational teachers

After watching Dead Poets Society again recently, I tried to write a piece on inspirational teachers in general, both inside and outside education. But it wouldn’t really work- came out like a soppy teenager’s journal entry. I was going to give it up completely but I’ve seen a few things since about how important teachers are for young people, having someone to fight your corner, and I decided to narrow it down and write about one of the best teachers I had at school- my personal Mr. Keating- share a few of the funny stories from those classes, and talk about the writers that are so important to me thanks to his teaching. Hopefully it will remind you of your teachers who went above and beyond in some way.

Richard Boden taught English Literature at my Sixth Form, and he is responsible for my love of Mozart, T.S. Eliot, John Donne, and the game Articulate!. His classes didn’t even feel like work- I enjoyed every minute, because his enjoyment of the topic came across so beautifully. I gained more confidence in those lessons than in any other before or since. Here are a few things he introduced me to and some funny stories from those lessons (I know this is still a very self-indulgent post, but I think he deserves it!).

We studied the play Amadeus by Peter Schaffer, and watched bits of the film, listened to pieces of Mozart as they were mentioned in the play, and even ate chocolates described in one scene (nipples of Venus!). That’s how I came to appreciate and adore Mozart’s music, and one piece in particular from near the beginning still gives me goosebumps whenever I think of it (Serenade for Winds, K.361, 3rd Movement- to this day I remember it’s K361!).

Richard chose John Donne’s poems from the choices on the syllabus, and we had a lot of laughs deciphering the fantastic innuendoes. One of the best was from The Good Morrow- I’ve put the whole poem here, just because it’s lovely:

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I

Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?

But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?

Or snorted we in the seven sleepers’ den?

‘Twas so, but this, all pleasures fancies be.

If ever any beauty I did see,

Which I desired, and got, ‘twas but a dream of thee.

And now good-morrow to our waking souls,

Which watch not one another out of fear;

For love, all love of other sights controls,

And makes one little room an everywhere.

Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,

Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,

Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,

And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;

Where can we find two better hemispheres,

Without sharp north, without declining west?

Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;

If our two loves be one, or, thou and I

Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.

Source: The Norton Anthology of Poetry Third Edition (1983)

Richard was trying to explain to us what Donne meant by ‘sucked on country pleasures, childishly’ without being too rude. So he read it out, with the following emphasis: ‘sucked on CUNT(pause)-ry pleasures, childishly.’ Mission accomplished, Richard- not rude at all. Subtle like a sledgehammer.

In another of Donne’s poems, he mentions being in physical pain because his lover won’t give in and sleep with him. Richard told us in no uncertain terms that if ever any man (it was a class of almost entirely women) told us that we had to sleep together else he would be in agony, it was a load of nonsense and not to fall for it. He got quite animated about it and we must have looked a little shocked, because he suddenly backed down with a ‘Yes… well, anyway…’ Valuable life lessons.

At Christmas Richard brought in the game Articulate! for us to play as a treat. It got quite heated and one of the words I had to describe was ‘bald.’ I completely blanked and in a panic pointed at him and just shouted: ‘RICHARD!’ Thankfully a girl on my team was on the same wavelength and after a split second hesitation called out: ‘BALD!’ Richard said grumpily: ‘I knew you were going to do that.’ Poor Richard- I am sorry!

Last but not at all least, T.S. Eliot. His poetry wasn’t on the syllabus- which was otherwise made up of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, and The Winter’s Tale. Both excellent and thoroughly enjoyable, but it was the few Eliot poems we went through which stay with me more than either. There were a few pointless weeks at the end of term when we couldn’t start the A Level syllabus yet, but they still had to teach. Richard introduced us to T.S. Eliot, and one poem we read which is still one of my absolute favourites is The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I won’t put it all here, as it is extremely long (as I realised to my cost when I was urged to read it aloud at a horrific work Christmas party, when we all had to read out a poem- I think my boss only encouraged me to read it as it was even longer than the one he read, and he wanted the crowd warmed up before he began. He didn’t like me particularly). It is a poem about an introvert, a man frightened of social engagements and the derision he feels will be aimed at him in pointed glances and whispered asides. Here are a few choice quotes:

“Streets that follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent”

“Do I dare to eat a peach?”

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”

“Time for you and time for me/ And time yet for a hundred indecisions,/ And for a hundred visions and revisions,/ Before the taking of a toast and tea.”

“In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”

“I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

“I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me.”

“I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, / And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, / And in short, I was afraid.”

Source: T. S. Eliot, Selected Poems, Faber & Faber, 1954

So many lines from it have stayed with me for years- particularly about ‘a hundred indecisions,’ as I am notoriously indecisive. Thank you, Richard, for your year of excellent teaching.

Watching Dead Poets Society brought back to me the power of poetry when you are young, if you find something that speaks to you. Of course, often people are turned against poetry for life at school, due to wearisome methods of teaching and eternal repetition. I tried reading ‘To Autumn’ again today, but I’m afraid its magic is forever lost to me after over an hour of our teacher asking everyone to recite as much as they could remember. Inevitably, most people could remember only the first line or two, and by the end of it I could have throttled Keats. So Richard was even more special for having the ability to show us the magic of the poems, the fun and the silliness as well as the serious side of them, and inspire a love of poetry, just as Mr. Keating does for his pupils in Dead Poets Society.

Quite by chance, I came across a volume of Walt Whitman poems only a week or so ago, and so read O Captain! My Captain! all the way through for the first time. Written about the death of Abraham Lincoln, and thereby mourning the loss of a pseudo-father, it is particularly poignant when read now with Robin Williams and his fatherly characters in mind. Here it is- tissues at the ready:

O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

But O heart! heart! heart!

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! My Captain! rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up – for you the flag is flung – for you the bugle trills,

For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths – for you the shores a-crowding,

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

Here Captain! dear father!

The arm beneath your head!

It is some dream that on the deck

You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,

From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won,

Exult O shores, and ring O bells!

But I with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

Source: The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman, Wordsworth Poetry Library, 2006

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