About six days ago, the nighttime temperature dropped, the humidity resolved itself, and the leaves on the maple over my deck trended scarlet. Fall, it would seem, timed its arrival to actually hit on the autumnal equinox—a rare state of affairs here in the North Carolina Piedmont, where it’s not regular sweater weather until sometime after Halloween. People rejoiced. Scarves were unearthed. Jackets unpacked. Some clamored for pumpkin spice. Others made fun of people clamoring for pumpkin spice. I pulled out a pair of boots for the first time since April and found the prospect of reintegrating them into my wardrobe bittersweet. On one hand, I love those boots (and boots in general). On the other hand, au revoir warm, lulling breezes and those long rosy summer dusks that fade out so slowly they might as well last for weeks. Those are the best.
I tell people I’ve never been much of a fall person. That’s not entirely accurate. Truer to say that fall lost most of its charm around the time when it ceased to revolve around buying school supplies. I can still close my eyes and summon the sweetish, plasticky scent of the kitten-fronted Trapper Keepers I coveted in elementary school. I remember running my fingers along the stacks at the dime store, begging my mother, insisting that organization my papers in any system outside the trademarked trapped and kept would doom me to a lifetime of failure and ignominy (she held out on me for years, and by the time I finally got one, the cool kids had moved on hand stickered binders and vintage composition books).
For me, actual school—nasty, brutish, and interminable– never lived up to its colorful pencil boxed promise until I was well past novelty Sanrio erasers. But I think there’s still an ingrained anticipation built into the season. Like, it’s been two decades since I’ve been on any kind of academic calendar, but I still kind of believe the real start of the New Year begins somewhere between August 15 and September, depending on snow days or school district. Thus the moment for me to change my life comes not in the hungover anticlimax of New Year’s Day but around the time the first cool wind of the season disturbs the short hairs on the nape of my neck. That’s when I get that first nostalgic whiff of actual autumn, which, for me, smells more like musty wool and cigarettes than cloves and cinnamon, and I think, hmm, maybe I should try to read Proust again.
It’s appropriate that Fall 2021 hit me at about 8pm this past Saturday, twenty minutes into a Covid-friendly front yard screening of “Dead Poets Society,” a film defined as much by its pervasive and poetic fall-ness as it is by its actual position on poetry. If you’ve missed it, it tells of a repressive traditional boarding school in 1959 that hires a charismatic young teacher, (played by Robin Williams at the peak of his manic, yet sensitive English teacher phase). This teacher opens his students hearts and minds through the power of literature. They reject the rigid bounds of their masculine mid-century milieu to explore artistic and romantic passions (with limited success). There are feelings aplenty, as well as inexplicable indoor bagpipes, corporal punishment, gorgeous sweaters and ominous, synth-soundtracked duffel coats, a climactic tragedy, and an absolutely intoxicating“New England” (technically Delaware) landscape that should probably be scheduled as a controlled substance. Never has boarding school looked so beautiful, nor rich white boys so sympathetic. And as a bonus, it’s a fine, comparatively restrained Robin Williams performance that feels impossibly poignant following his own tragic demise in 2014.
“Dead Poets Society” is a film so braided into my personal history, adolescent edition, that any objective discussion of its actual failures and merits is almost certainly impossible for me. It was a huge factor in determining the middle third of my teenage years, the places where I thought I wanted to go, the things I thought I wanted to try, the sensitive, the sensitive, floppy-haired boys I wanted to date, the sensitive floppy-haired boys I wanted to be. I hold it in esteem. I hold it responsible. I honestly have no idea how my early teenaged life would have played out if I hadn’t seen it at 13 ½ years old.
I wasn’t alone in any of these things. There were, in those days at least, a lot of us. The micro-generation old enough to see both “Say Anything” and “Dead Poets” in the theater (or slightly later on VHS) and young enough to find their young male protagonists wholly plausible models of what high school boys might be like. You might find us sneaking out of slumber parties to read poetry aloud in someone’s moonlit front yard, discussing which of the film’s afore-mentioned sensitive, floppy haired Dead Poets was our favorite (mine was Neil) as we failed the President’s Physical Fitness test for the umpteenth consecutive year. You might see us eyeing sweater vests and tweed skirts at the mall, as if owning such items would confer some charmingly androgynous, bookish, WASPy glamour onto our pudgy, acned, middlebrow, middle class, Middle American selves (see also: The Secret History not long after). Even a few years later at heavily body-pierced Peak Irony, when we’d cringe at having ever liked something so unabashedly sincere, there was always some otherwise apex-tier punk rock kid around who would get drunk and go on about how “Dead Poets” had saved their life.
It was an embarrassing confession then, years before it occurred to anyone that maybe fawning over extravagant white privilege was perhaps the greater sin than being a cornball with a Carpe Diem branded dorm-door whiteboard. Rewartching “Dead Poets Society” in 2021 really put the awkward and poorly-aged in high relief. Individually they are small complaints (although Nuwanda and the delivery of that Vachel Lindsay “Congo” poem? Not a great look). A friend a few years north of the critical Dead Poets demographic at Saturday’s screening took particular umbrage at the very idea that the floppy-haired, entitled sons of the old money elite needed any additional to express themselves without reservation (the word “ejaculation” might have been used). Because isn’t that what they are empowered do already?
His was a fair criticism, even if it, like all fair criticisms of beloved, if somewhat challenging nostalgic totems put me on the defensive. I gave some half-hearted spiel about queer subtext and the laudable aim of directing young men toward, like, art and feelings instead of, like, banking, war and country clubs. It sounded like bullshit because it was a dodge. Because the thing I loved so much about “Dead Poets Society, the thing that I felt defensive about was that I still found it comforting. Because I still remember the way I found its color palette, its scenery–so evocative you could almost smell the damp leaves and woodsmoke and floor polish in the classroom—its lovely, overachieving, sensitive boys (who could be all mine without me having to compete with any rogue Diane Courts), and the kind, intuitive Robin Williams performance that was honestly everything I ever wanted my father or my teacher or any older male authority figure, really, to be with me. I wanted to slip right into that world, wholly imaginary and problematic as it was and is and hover on the edge of a perfect, brisk October morning, noisy with dumb poems and the clamor of passing geese.
And I did, too, for a minute. I spent three years in a world, slightly more diverse and significantly more coed than the school in “Dead Poet’s Society,” but close enough in character that I personally attest to what those wood floors smelled like and how it felt to play sports on fields that looked like matte paintings. I even had my own Mr Keating or two, though neither particularly inclined toward Whitman-esque self-regard. The boys were suitably floppy haired, but generally more caustic, a result, perhaps, of less Keats and more Fugazi (the most representative floppy-haired, sensitive prep school boy of my age cohort is/was probably Beto O’Rourke—make of that what you will), and like most real-life human beings, somewhat less enamored of adolescent me than my “Dead Poets”-inspired fantasy life would have allowed.
There’s a lot of that experience I treasured, both in the moment and in retrospect, though like the movie that inspired me to go, my high school experience summons a little cringe and a lot of awkward, especially over the last few years when its own pristine autumnal façade has been sullied by allegations of abuse. I never donated to my school’s annual fund, but I did encourage parents to send their kids there. I did write, and talk, repeatedly about how much it meant to me, in that moment, at that time, and try to figure out whether it launched me into something better and brighter or doomed me to being perennially disappointed by the fact that real life is seldom so picturesque.
To be honest, I don’t know how to talk about all of that now, so I mostly try not to. Which is hard. I’ve built a fair chunk of identity and personal narrative foundation on my “Dead Poets Society” years. Strategically stripping context away from my past feels about as bogus as it does ineffective. But it’s also probably true I would have bought school supplies. I would have crushed on the same number of boys that didn’t notice. I would have dreamed myself into movies and felt the same way about New Order’s “Temptation” if I’d first danced to it in a place without so many ties and so much baggage. The leaves would have changed and I might have found somewhere more accommodating and less restrictive than the place I thought I needed to be.