|Greenfield Pitts, Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society From Reel to Real
Ein ehemaliger Schüler von Keating (alias Pickering), der im Film unter seinem tatsächlichen Namen Pitts eine Rolle spielt, schreibt über seinen Ex-Lehrer. Der relativ kurze Text eignet sich für den Unterricht, da sich die Unterschiede zwischen dem "reel Keating" und dem "real Keating" gut herausarbeiten lassen.
Greenfield Pitts is Senior Vice President of International Banking, First Wachovia Corporate Services, Inc., Atlanta, Georgia. Condensed from Schoolbook, 1 (Spring 1990), 12-15.
The recent film Dead Poets Society, about an unorthodox high school English teacher with an extraordinary impact on his young charges, is based on a true story. I had the good fortune to be a student of the real Mr. Keating. I was even the inspiration for the character Mr. Pitts in the film: "Mr. Pitts," says Keating on the first day of class. "What an unfortunate name."
The principal characters are based on real people, and many experiences actually happened in some form. There was no suicide, however, and no Dead Poets Society. The adults in our lives were not all ogres; in fact, they were pretty much like we are now.
The real Mr. Keating is Sam Pickering, Ph. D., who, at 50, is a father of three and professor of English at the University of Connecticut. He had been a student at our southern boys' day school prior to returning for one year as a teacher. A very eccentric, brilliant character, he had an extraordinary effect on me and my classmates. Obviously, he did on my classmate, Tom Schulman, whose screenplay for the film offered his interpretation of that memorable year.
Tom must have been particularly overwhelmed with the class. I know from talking to him that he kept all his books and notes from Pickering's class, which he used in the film. In fact, some books in the film look like the actual ones we used. The literary passages in the film were ones Tom underlined in class discussions. The title sounds so much like Pickering that he may have said it, or at least referred to some authors we read as dead poets. I'm sure if he did, Tom would have written it down and used it later.
The time was September 1965, my sophomore year at Montgomery Bell Academy, a boys' day school in Nashville, Tennessee. MBA has a long history, starting before the Civil War, and took itself rather seriously. But it prepared us students for college, preferably the Ivy League, although Vanderbilt, where Pickering and Schulman went, was also a great favorite. MBA was the school for sons of good families.
One of those was Sam Pickering, who had graduated from MBA some years earlier. When he returned to teach at age 25, he had spent the year before as a Rhodes scholar at Cambridge, and I think he fancied himself a model of the English don. He looked the part, with his wire-rimmed spectacles and his hair slicked back in a kind of British schoolboy cut. He wore sweater vests and kept his shirt sleeves rolled up. He had a very affected English accent. He even wore a scarf of his Cambridge college colors. I think he was playing a role and enjoying it, thinking he was funny and also pretty wonderful. Anyway, Mr. Pickering was full of himself but also very full of life.
Our typical classes were a drag, taught by teachers who had been at MBA forever. Old ways were considered best. But the new Mr. Pickering was great fun. Each class was wrought with anticipation as to what he might say and do. His antics and teaching style were such that you could not help but listen and think.
Although Pickering used a kind of cutting humor, his was the kind of dry wit that made you feel he liked you. To underscore memorable lines, he would clench his right fist and move his arm up and down in a kind of pumping gesture. Then he would make a sound that was a kind of extended Harrumph, like a character out of Great Expectations. This said to look sharp - something was going to happen, or he was going to say something particularly outrageous.
He would be teaching along, for example, and all of a sudden, a line or thought he wanted to underscore would come up. He would jump up on his desk and proclaim from that height. "You get such a different perspective from up here," he would say, ending with "Harrumph" and a sideways look. Some days he would run out of the classroom and talk to us through the window; he would put his foot in the trash can and scream Shakespeare.
By doing ridiculous things with his body, he made lines and scenes from literature stand out in our minds, which, at that age, were pretty much always centered on our bodies, anyway. It was a pretty good teaching technique, now that I think about it.
The school allowed teachers to dole out demerits at will. Pickering had come up through this system as a student and obviously thought it silly, but he was sworn to uphold it. So, typically, he did it in as absurd a way as possible. His demerits were meted out with great inconsistency of purpose. I recall that C. Landstreet - depicted in the film as Mr. Overstreet, but with the same lover characteristics - once talked during one of Mr. Pickering's long soliloquies about Shakespeare. This rarely happened, since we usually hung on his every word. Instead of challenging Landstreet, however, Pickering gave demerits to Charlie Nelson: "You're Landstreet's friend, so you obviously want to save him demerits. The demerits go to you." And thus went the day.
Another thing he did because he had to was coach our intramural soccer team. I was on the team. Everybody had to play on a team at MBA. Every teacher had to take charge of a sport. Pickering was a terrible athlete, so he was assigned soccer, which you didn't have to know a thing about to coach. He lumbered along at it in his unique style. "Well, gentlemen, I have to do this," he would say. He obviously sought to make it interesting to himself. Before we were allowed to kick the ball, we had to recite a quotation he had assigned us prior to practice. We had fun, and he could stand on the sidelines and involve himself in physical activity as little as possible.
Mr. Pickering was determined to make us writers: writers of classical verse, or, lacking the talent, of personal essays in a classical style. He would send us to the library to do research and catalog quotations, to find obscure tomes in the stacks. In effect, he wanted us to know the library, a place that was foreboding, dark, and dusty.
Most of us had great fun at the library. We spent hours crafting absolutely fabulous fake I.D.'s - my first experience with a Xerox machine. Great stuff. It is hard to say which was a greater draw: this important diversion, or trying to please Mr. Pickering by learning to use the library. He did get us there, we learned how to use the library, and he thought we were very studious - a personal and professional success. I also think he probably knew what we were doing, though he would never have said so.
I don't remember ever seeing Pickering with anybody, although he had grown up in Nashville and had family there. He certainly didn't hang around with other faculty members, nor did he ever bring a date to a dance. He never chaperoned a dance, either, and I wonder in what unique ways he got around the obligation. I think he was a very private person, enjoying the time to be alone, read all the time, and get paid for it.
He was always accessible to us. My friends and I used to visit him on weekends at the cottage where he lived, which was near my house and in the same neighborhood of many of my friends. Books were strewn all over the floor: poetry, classics, novels. He always had the time to talk to me and others, but he never missed the opportunity to improve our minds.
The talk was about literature and things he particularly enjoyed reading. Personal conversation was always based on that larger emphasis. He cared about us, and we reciprocated. We took in his words, his wisdom, his message. And we enjoyed the experience enormously.
The real-life Pickering wasn't hounded out of the school by angry parents who were afraid he was subverting their sons. In fact, his one-year contract was up, and he left to pursue graduate studies. But that wouldn't have satisfied Tom Schulman's dramatic purposes, so I understand why he did it.
I have heard that Tom has said the character of Keating was based not only on Pickering but also on our senior English teacher. I suspect Tom was being polite. That would be the nice kind of thing a Nashville boy from a good family would do. If he did use Miss Lowery, it was only in her intensity. The rest of it seemed pure Pickering to me.
Tom never corresponded with Pickering while the movie was being made. In fact, they got together only later when they were invited to Vanderbilt, from which both had graduated. At that time, Pickering told one reporter that he had not yet seen the movie. He said he didn't get out much and lived in a small town that didn't get first-run movies, so he would wait until it got there. I can just hear him saying that. He's also reported to have said, "It's been great fun, except that I haven't made any money from it," which might reflect his present status as a father of three.
l'm sure Mr. Pickering affected each of us in different ways. Remember, at this time of our lives, we were sponges; we took it all in. We probably all have a slightly different version of his story. Mr. Pickering's message to us was very clear throughout the term: Think for yourself; make your own decisions; be responsible for your actions. Through poetry and literature, he illustrated his points.
I will never forget his admonition, taken from a day of reading Thoreau: "Do not find when you come to die that you have not lived." The line appeared in the film, and obviously in Tom's notebooks; and I can say categorically that, even though my notebooks hit the trash the day the class ended, this thought has influenced my life directly.
I would hope my fortunate experience with Mr. Pickering translates to everyone somewhere, someplace, sometime. I hope everyone has a Mr. Keating in his memory. For me, his zest for life and the knowledge and ideas are always there. As he said so often, "Seize the moment, for tomorrow will be too late!"