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The ‘Dead Poets’ grow up

I never realized how strongly my generation embraced “carpe diem” as its mantra until I woke up to see my Facebook feed flooded with quotes from Robin Williams’ 1989 movie “Dead Poets’ Society.”

We remember literature teacher John Keating (Williams) and his wards staring at decades-old photos hanging in the school trophy room. They are so alike, he tells them: same haircuts, same hormones, same sense of invincibility. But the boys in the photos, Keating continues, are now pushing daffodils. Did they hesitate to pursue the great things destined for them in their brief lives? He then gently exhorts his wards: “Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day, boys, make your lives extraordinary.”

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This iconic line defined the children of the 1990s, along with curious muses such as Kurt Cobain and the Eraserheads. Imagine a generation somewhat distanced from the Edsa Revolution and the turbulent martial law years, one thus less jaded and placing less importance on stability. Imagine a generation more purposeful and more concerned with finding its special place in a quickly developing country. Such a generation’s values would be near alien to its predecessors and to comfortable, reliable hierarchies. Such a generation would happily join Williams standing on a classroom chair to seek a different perspective on life.

A generation that had to make do with much less in unsure times is compelled to ask why the one-time schoolchildren in Williams’ extended classroom ask so much more from life that they would never be content until they have sucked the marrow out of it. What is so wrong with quietly completing a respectable degree, earning a decent living, starting a family, and slowly growing old? Why must everything be magical, ambitious and, to use Williams’ word, extraordinary?

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The ’90s child quotes Keating: “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering—these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love—these are what we stay alive for.” One must touch every dimension of life to truly be alive! Or, in still another Keating-ism: “The longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find [your voice] at all. Thoreau said, ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!”

The memorable opening of “Dead Poets’ Society” has one of Williams’ pupils reading out the introduction in their poetry book which prescribes a mathematical formula to gauge a poem’s quality. Williams vehemently instructs the class to tear out the nonsensical essay, making it every young literature teacher’s dream to ask a class to tear out a chapter from their books while standing on his desk. (But it is Ateneo literature professor and uber Kiefer Ravena fan Miguel Lizada who lives the dream, having walked into a class of freshmen standing on their chairs in tribute to him and Williams.) In another scene, as an introduction to Robert Frost’s poem “The road not taken,” Williams tells three boys to walk around and then points out that they began with their own stride but quickly fell into a uniform rhythm.

To the ’90s child, there is no better facsimile of hell than rotting in a cubicle somewhere, being told to fit oneself into a preexisting category in a group regardless of one’s actual traits, and losing the sense of wonder in building things to a pursuit of 10 arcane subranks of vice-president-pushing daffodils even before one has been buried. We were taught the traditional values of patient, hard work and paying one’s dues. The Dead Poets quietly rebelled, however, seeing new heroes such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg think outside society’s structures and eventually write its new rules. Now armed with social media, budget airlines and Williams quotes, their new ethos is to seek further opportunities to disrupt society and make it better, instantly if possible.

And the Dead Poets are now silently taking over; the inmates are slowly running the asylum. Our young Senate, for example, reflects our young electorate, and it is a joy to see neophyte senators push ideas overdue for public debate. Sonny Angara has stressed how the middle class needs relief from our unbelievably high income-tax rates, which are inexplicably much higher than neighbors such as Cambodia’s. Bam Aquino is focusing attention on micro, small and social enterprises and empowering entrepreneurs. Grace Poe has credibly reiterated the freedom of information bill at a time when the public demands greater transparency from government. And wait till the ’90s children focus on our slow Internet speeds!

O Captain! My Captain! Your fearful trip is done, but ours is just beginning, we ’90s Filipinos who love art, emotion and spunk in equal parts and who remain captivated by you. We are devastated by how you must have given away all the joy within you that your life ended when none was left for yourself, but I wonder if you are inadvertently reprising Keating one last time, giving us one last jolt 25 years later, when we have all grown into the prime of our lives and have become absorbed in the noble pursuits necessary to sustain life.

O Captain! My Captain! I hope to say that we of the ’90s have not ceased our barbaric yawps. That we still strive to make our screwed-up country extraordinary. That we still believe that, “no matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

Oscar Franklin Tan (@oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan) says he “reconnected with various teachers on Facebook, where they still whisper ‘carpe diem’ to the impertinent child he will always be.”

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TAGS: “Dead Poets Society”, Carpe Diem, John Keating, Movies, Robin Williams, tribute
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