MR. PERRY: After you finish medical school and you are on your own then you can do as you damn well please…but until then, you do as I tell you.
Neil doesn't have much chance to figure out his dreams. His father has them figured out for him. The plans have already been made for Neil's life; all he has to do is go along with them and not put up a fight. This starts to grate on Neil, and he slowly tries to stand up to his father, eventually expressing his dream of acting. But does Neil decide his true dreams because he really wants them, or because they're the opposite of his father's?
CHARLES: How was dinner?
KNOX: (Dreamily) Huh?
CHARLES: How was dinner?
KNOX: Terrible. Awful.
CHARLES: Why? What happened?
KNOX: Tonight, I met the most beautiful girl I've ever seen in my entire life.
NEIL: Are you crazy? What's wrong with that?
KNOX: She's practically engaged. To Chet. Danbury. […] I can't just forget about her.
When Knox meets Chris, he's pretty much done for: he falls immediately in love. Throughout the film, Knox realizes that all his hopes are bound up in getting her love back in return. It's all he can think about; he even writes a poem and recites it in front of the class, despite the mocking he knows he'll face. To Knox, love is a dream, one that he must attain. He can't just forget about it, even if the object of his love is spoken for (and even if he doesn't really know her all that well).
MR. KEATING: (To the students) To quote from Whitman, "Oh me, oh life, of the questions of these recurring, of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities filled with the foolish, what good amidst these, oh me? Oh life? Answer: That you are here, that life exists, and identity. That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse." (Pause) "That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse." What will your verse be?
Whitman was a man who believed in the beauty of hope and dreams. Here, Mr. Keating uses his poem to inspire the students to consider what their legacy will be after they are gone. What verse (i.e., mark) will they leave behind? To figure it out, they have to figure out what they hope to do with their lives.
MR. MCALLISTER: Quite an interesting class you gave today, Mr. Keating.
MR. KEATING: Sorry if I shocked you, Mr. McAllister.
MR. MCALLISTER: Oh, there's no need to apologize. It was very fascinating, misguided though it was.
MR. KEATING: You think so, huh?
MR. MCALLISTER: You take a big risk by encouraging them to be artists, John. When they realize that they're not Rembrandts, Shakespeares, or Mozarts, they'll hate you for it.
MR. KEATING: Funny, I never pegged you for a cynic.
MR. MCALLISTER: Not a cynic…a realist. "Show me the heart unfettered by foolish dreams, and I'll show you a happy man."
Mr. McAllister believes that not every student at Welton should follow his dreams. Why? Because they can't ever be as good a writer as Shakespeare or as good an artist as Rembrandt, and if they try they'll just be disappointed. He thinks they should have more realistic plans, and not be encouraged to follow every dream they might have for themselves.
Does he have a point? Not everyone who wants to sign will be Beyonce, and not everyone who wants to play basketball will get drafted to the NBA, after all. Does following our dreams only set us up for disappointment?
NEIL: I'm gonna act!
NEIL: Yes. Yes! I'm gonna be an actor. Ever since I can remember, I've wanted to try this! I even tried to go to summer stock auditions last year, but of course my father wouldn't let me. For the first time in my whole life, I know what I want to do. For the first time, and I'm gonna do it. Whether my father wants me to or not. Carpe diem!
Neil's dream becomes a reality for him the moment he sees there are tryouts on campus. He realizes that acting is what he wants to do with his life, and that nothing is going to stop him. His dream is going to become a reality. But even in his most excited moment, he still thinks of his father. He knows that his dreams will directly bump up against the plans that his father has for his life.