Many of you will recall the 1989 movie classic Dead Poets Society. Set in 1959 at an elite and conservative prep school in England, the movie tells the story of John Keating – an English teacher who inspired his students through his unorthodox methods of teaching poetry. The central theme of the movie could be summed up in the teacher’s exhortation to the boys to “make your lives extraordinary” a sentiment he summarised with the Latin exhortation carpe diem – seize the day.
In 1989, this movie had deep resonance with me and a close group of good friends at our similarly elite and conservative high school in Johannesburg. At the time in an all-boys South African school, if you excelled at Rugby then you were assured a smooth passage through to matric with an assurance of being a prefect (and probably not a virgin) by the time you reached matric. But alas, my group of friends where no good at rugby and so you can probably guess that our leadership lives (and indeed our love lives) were less colourful than they might have been.
In 1989, we were in Standard 9 – or grade 11 as they call it today – and into our lives walked one Roger Lovett, our very own John Keating. He was a teacher of enormous passion whose English lessons were filled with drama and wildness. He was an eccentric chap; portly with a thick mop who wore tweed jackets and owned a Great Dane, inevitably named Hamlet.
He broke every rule in the book swearing, talking about sex in a way that mattered to 17-year-old boys and forcing us to reflect on the reality of life outside the safe confines of a mostly white South African private school. The video club he started would find us watching age restricted movies like the harrowing Burt Reynolds classic Deliverance. He started movie and theatre clubs and we would watch, discuss, argue and critique. He pushed us way beyond our 17-year-old selves. The only rule seemed to be that no subject was off limits. Friday evenings would find us at his home debating something-or-other most fiercely whilst eating food cooked by his wife and drinking wine that was most certainly not permitted. In all this, Roger Lovett caused us to believe we could live extraordinary lives. That is the power of great teachers and my friends and I owe a tremendous amount to this one man.
I have not kept up with all my pals from our very own Dead Poets Society, but of the ones I am still in touch with, one has become a top lawyer, another an award-winning broadcast journalist, another began a hugely successful chain of restaurants and the other has become an award-winning movie producer. None of these achievements – all so different – should be seen outside of the impact that Roger Lovett had on our lives.
You see this teacher gave us all a love for language, art, theatre, movies and reading. But most importantly he taught us how to think. He never allowed us accept the status quo; life as presented by the prevailing dialogue of our time. He never allowed us to regurgitate stock answers fed to us by our parents or the media. He forced us to engage critically with issues that matter. For me – in fact for us all – this is where it all began; in that classroom, round that dinner table, in those theatres and movie houses.
It was a member of this ‘elite group’ – film producer Barry Strick – that got me thinking about Roger Lovett and how desperately we need more of his ilk in our classrooms. Last weekend Strick’s significant and controversial movie “Twee Grade van Moord” (Two Degrees of Murder – subtitled in English) about the topical but thorny issue of assisted suicide, won Best Feature Film and the Audience Choice Award at the important Karoo Arts Festival. It is just the beginning for a much-needed movie that is tipped to go a long way both locally and abroad.
Now, I seriously doubt whether beautiful and necessary films like this would ever see the light of day if it weren’t for great teachers like Roger Lovett challenging their learners to push the envelope of extra-ordinary in their chosen fields. We may grow up and move on but their legacy remains throughout lifetimes.
I am not sure where Roger Lovett is today but two things I know for sure; the first is that we desperately need more of our teachers to become John Keatings and Roger Lovetts if South Africa is to reach her full potential. Yes, we need our teachers to teach but perhaps more importantly, we need them to inspire our children to extraordinary lives.
The other thing I know is that if Roger Lovett was anywhere near Barry Strick at this point, he would grab him by the shoulders and bellow at him: “Well bloody done Strick!”
Twee Grade van Moord opens at cinemas nationwide on 22 July.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
This column is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.