O Captain, my Captain

I am a creator of worlds. That may sound arrogant, but it’s the truth. Tuck in with me on a lazy afternoon, and I’ll shape castles and characters and conflicts out of the clouds of steam from our teacups. I knew how to tell stories almost before I knew what stories were. Whether playing with my Star Wars or She-Ra figures, plotting elaborate adventures across the field of our backyard, scratching out my first poems for a supportive teacher, or imagining fantasy celebrity lives for friends in my teens, mythologizing the world has always been my way of understanding it.

Unless you’re a writer or a video game developer, this isn’t exactly a marketable skill. Very few parents, and certainly not mine, want their children to grow up to be artists. Especially if you’re brought up in an immigrant family, like I was. The Protestant Work Ethic has its merits, but there was no one to teach me how to apply it to the arts. My father preached science and higher education from the head of our dining room table every night, and my grades only supported his rhetoric. If I had the smarts to do anything, then why settle for this? It’s not even real work.

So my imaginary friends stayed in my head, where I could play with them without judgment or consequence—although at this point there were so many, it was getting a little tight in there—and at the ripe old age of 12, I set out down the road oft-travelled. Until the last day of secondary one, when I saw a movie that would change the course of my life forever.

Somehow, my wallflower self managed to convince four friends to see the new Robin Williams laugh-fest after our last exam. We had all loved Good Morning, Vietnam the year before, were fans of his stand-up, and couldn’t resist the idea of getting out of school at noon and taking the bus downtown by ourselves for the first time. Giddy as only teen girls can be, we took over the back of the bus, teasing and shrieking our way down to the Loews cinema to see Dead Poets Society.

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Three hours later, my mom drove up to the curb and, to her astonishment, picked up five sobbing girls. The laugh-fest had been a tragic, lyrical master-class on why art is important. And I was transformed. If Neil Perry could die for his art, then I could live for mine. I memorized every poem recited in the film. I tried to get my friends to start our own dead poets society (unsurprisingly, a bust). I saw the movie at least five times in the cinema and countless times since. Carpe diem became my mantra.

I screwed my courage to the sticking place and joined the drama club the next semester, acting in every production from then on, eventually contributing a monologue to a student-written collaborative piece and, by my final year, directing the school play. I joined a local youth theater. I wrote stories for school, stories for my friends, stories in my head just to pass the time. I fought with my father almost every night of my last two years of high school, first over my choice to do creative writing over chemistry as my elective, then over applying to the creative arts program in college. Always in the back of my mind were Neil Perry’s father’s cruel words to him, the ones that made him take his own life, and Professor Keating’s inspirational ones, which I let guide me. Not that I could have been anything other than what I am today: an artist, a writer.

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I heard this week that they are adapting Dead Poets for the stage, which got me excited and a little bit sad. Because I wrote and staged a partial adaptation for my senior project in college, directing my theater friends in two versions, one all-boys and one all-girls. I love the film that much. While part of me wishes I could be on the team that brings this vision to life, I’m also just grateful that a new generations of artists will sit in Professor Keating’s classroom and learn to sound their barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world. Will be inspired into careers in the creative class. Will be encouraged to write, to play, to sing, to be the best versions of themselves.

To seize the day.

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2 thoughts on “O Captain, my Captain

  1. Robin Patterson says:

    Wow. You speak for so many of us as we struggle in our lives, striving to be true to our creative desires, while the rest of the world thinks we are merely fiddling around and wasting time. Thank you! 🙂

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