Skip Navigation

John Keating - Caitlin Carlton

by Caitlin Carlton

The desks were in the same abstract pattern, speckling the room half-way between lines and a circle. He sat in the midst of them, conveying the fact that in this room, we were all equal. He didn’t belong behind the large, mahogany desk, seated in the plush rolling chair. Pretentious classrooms just didn’t suit him. So there he waited, in a student’s desk, barely able to fit his rotund belly between the rigid frame of table and chair. His warm eyes peeked inquisitively over his half-moon spectacles as he twiddled his thumbs against his lavender sweater vest; the fluorescent lighting ricocheted off his bare head. His upper lip, hidden by his fuzzy caterpillar moustache, twitched with excitement as we entered the room, one by one. I swear, if I didn’t know the man, I would never believe that he was real. A plump, vested English teacher, who came alive as soon as his students entered the room, is not something of this world. He is of another place made of magic and Dead Poet’s Societies, not rooms of stark white and average minds. 

He never noticed though.

As far as he was concerned, this was where he belonged, where he was destined to be. It is because of this he resolutely stood by our sides through every stage of our high school careers. When we first walked through his doors, we were awkward. He just chuckled. Later, we thought we knew all we needed to know. He gently reminded us that we really knew nothing at all. It was alright though, because he admitted that often, he knew nothing at all either. Nobody knows anything, not really. He stood fast in the knowledge that sometimes, to realize that is the key to everything. All that time, he patiently stood guard, watching over our intellectual development, teaching us acceptance, and shaping our minds into something beautiful and honest, until that day, four years and countless books and essays later, he stood for a new purpose. To let us go.

We filed haphazardly into the room as if it was just another day. As we jabbered about summer plans and tearful goodbyes, he rose from his desk with a stack of papers and quietly weaved in and out of the disorderly desks, placing them in front of us without a word. Usually, we would have just ignored the sheets littering our personal space until he told us to do otherwise, but considering it was our very last day of high school ever, we knew it couldn’t be an assignment. Knowing this, our curiosity was peaked, and I for one thumbed through it as soon as it hit my desk.

“What is this?” my friend asked from behind a stack of our unnecessarily large yearbooks. Who knows? The margins were full of his old notations. Clearly it was an excerpt from his favorite book. Suddenly, in the midst of all the chaos, we heard, “Could everyone put their things away please? You can sign yearbooks another time.”

We did as we were told, and then, once again, he took a seat among us in one of our desks with his copy of the packet lying in front of him. He briefly explained his love for the story of King Arthur’s Court and how the king fought for something he believed in, knowing the odds were against him, aware that it would ultimately lead to his undoing.

“Which is where we pick up,” he said as he opened the packet. He began reading aloud, breathing life into the scene we held in our hands in which King Arthur calls to a page boy and asks him, not to fight, but to go out and let the world know what had happened there. The king asks the boy if he wouldn’t mind sharing that few men fought against many to create something noble and pure. “If it pleases my king” is the response, so the old and tired King Arthur hands the page a single candle and sends the small boy off into the night.

He read the final sentence softly, “And then…he was gone.” With this, his voice broke and he covered his mouth. We were taken aback by this sudden burst of emotion. We knew that silence was the only appropriate reaction as he composed himself, so in silence we watched as he suddenly produced a small, white box. Without a word, he was on his feet once again, revealing the contents of the curious package by placing a small, gold candle stick on each of our desks. When he returned to his seat, he paused for a moment, and then softly said, “This is what I ask of you. Take what you have learned here, in this place, in this room, and go out and share it with the world.”

My friends and I stared at each other. Surely, this isn’t real. These things don’t happen in public high schools. Teachers don’t give you gold candlesticks, inspiring you to run into the world, all ablaze. Surely, he is about to laugh, maybe follow it with an exclamation of “Fooled ya!” Or worse, someone will laugh at him. Yet on that day, all the forces of the universe were aligned in just the right way, and every young soul in that room knew not to speak. If anything, we were absolutely certain that he was trying to tell us something that, at first, we wouldn’t be able to grasp. Something that would leave us floundering in a new understanding of things.

Without notice, he started quoting a Dylan Thomas poem. Gently and adamantly he rehearsed the entire work and finished with the words that left us all breathless, “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”



Then, quietly, it crept in− hope. It floated lightly around the room, and I was sure I could reach out and pick it from the air if I had wanted. “I have given you everything I have, but if you take anything, please take this,” he said. “You must not go quietly. If you see an injustice, rage against it. If you see something beautiful, rage for it. Fight for the noble causes you know are worthy, and fight to preserve what is pure. Do not go quietly; let the world know you are here. You are present. You are young, but you must be counted.”

So what is there to say? When you’re fighting between the urge to break down and weep at the thought of finally leaving a room so full of love and passion and the irrational momentary desire to stand and shout your promise of “raging “until you die, what do you do? I simply stared, praying that he could read my thoughts so I wouldn’t have to fail miserably in attempting to verbalize what I felt.

“I am not a religious man,” he continued. “But I do consider myself to be spiritual, and I believe what people say about finding pieces of heaven on earth. I believe what they say about eternity being the moments of your life that you have felt the happiest, the most complete.”

I bowed my head, because then I felt it. I knew.

Another pause.

“You are my eternity.” He whispered.

Surely, this isn’t real. I floundered first, and then I understood. No, men like him are not of this world, but perhaps if they were, we wouldn’t have to rage so hard.