I somehow only just watched Dead Poet’s Society all the way through when it aired on TV over Christmas, and of course I loved it so much I proceeded to PVR it and watch it a few more times in a row. It reminded me of just how important great teachers are, and how rare they are.
If we are lucky we will each have one or two who make an incredible impact on our lives the way Robin William’s character Mr. Keating did on that class.
For me, it was Mr. Nelligan. He was the “O Captain, My Captain” to my Todd Anderson, except he inspired me via film rather than poetry (it’s no mistake I am reminded of his genius via a movie). It seems weird to be writing about him more than a decade after I sat in his grade 10 religion class, but I was immediately reminded of him and how much confidence he gave me upon watching Dead Poets Society.
It was second semester of my sophomore year of high school, and while high school so far was a breeze compared to the torture I endured in elementary school, I was still ridiculously shy and filled with self hatred despite having left the agony of 7th grade far behind me.
I entered grade 10 religion class prepared to be bored out of my mind as I had been in the grade 9 version of it (which at this point, I can’t even remember who taught that class – it was that boring). These forced bible readings are the main downfall of attending Catholic school – but I immediately knew this was going to be interesting from the moment Mr. Nelligan introduced himself.
To begin with, he was absolutely hilarious, and would often talk about racing Oprah in Chicago marathons and all kinds of shit where we really had no idea if he was being serious or not. He was American, but apparently left the States for Canada in order to dodge the Vietnam drafts – which I found to be the coolest thing ever as a 15 year old NDP kid (still do).
It was obvious he wanted to be teaching the older grades where teachers have more freedom and kids are a little older/smarter/more self aware and interesting, but something had happened at his previous school so he ended up here, teaching the most formulaic bullshit class to kids who still had no idea what they wanted to do with their lives. He may have mentioned this to me once.
I no longer remember why or how he first singled me out, but at some point, our mutual love for film and his acute awareness that I was painfully shy but smarter than most of the idiots in the class made him talk to me every day in front of everyone before he got started on the lesson, asking me what movies I had watched (something I did most nights in high school). This brief but daily acknowledgement of my existence that I had really never received from a teacher before, this small but significant gesture, made me feel important and gave me so much confidence – I will forever see it as a pivotal moment in my life.
It was as though he knew what he was teaching us was complete bs, but he worked for a Catholic school and in some weird ironic twist of fate ended up teaching religion. He taught us the bible literally – which I think scared a lot of the kids in his class, but he knew there were always some like me who realized he was laughing in his head when making us read the old testament and telling us it was all true. Someone who thought The Last Temptation of Christ was one of the best movies ever, surely didn’t take the bible literally. He gave me a list of movies to watch, and I worked my way through them by the end of the semester – he LOVED Mickey Rourke so I watched The Pope of Grenwhich Village and Barfly so I could talk about it with him. That movie education was more interesting than anything else I learned in high school.
After taking his class, I was no longer scared to do the things that mattered to me like take drama class or audition for plays, out of fear of merely speaking in front of people. I never again trembled or mumbled through an English class monologue, holding back tears behind the cue cards. I didn’t care what the popular kids thought of me anymore – he tore up my shell and made me feel good about myself again. He let me know that my voice had value too – and I needed that more than anything when I was 15:
Mr. Nelligan, it’s probably unlikely you would even remember me after so many years, but if you are somehow out there googling your name and come across this – thank you for making my time at Notre Dame interesting and fun – and I’m sorry that assignment I did on drug abuse got you in trouble (I showed a bunch of drug abuse clips from some of my favourite movies – Basketball Diaries, Barfly, Trainspotting etc, for it and passed out some apparently inappropriate hand outs). That was another cool thing about him – he let us be so free and creative that we did something that the school found unacceptable, and he took the blame for it – just like in Dead Poets Society. Beloved by his students for good reason.
I never thought I would be sad to leave a religion class behind, but I desperately wanted to have him as a teacher again. It would mean a lot to be able to thank him and talk to him now that I’m no longer that meek teenage girl stuck in a town she despised.