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It's the beginning of the school year for a group of students at Hellton—er Welton—Academy, a prestigious all-boys boarding school in 1950s Vermont. Ah, back-to-school season: that wonderful time of fresh new notebooks, squeaky pink erasers, and existential dread.
Among the students feeling the end-of-summertime blues: the shy newcomer Todd and his roommate, Neil, both of whom (along with the other boys) have to sit through a lecture by the stern and humorless Headmaster Nolan about the many merits of their fancy-shmancy Welton.
At least one interesting thing happens in this first meeting, though: the boys are introduced to their new English teacher, Mr. Keating. But more on that later.
After meeting Neil and Todd's parents, it's clear that the two boys have a lot in common. Neil's parents plan for him to have every advantage that they didn't, so he's on the fast track to medical school (whether he likes it or not).
And Todd's parents just want him to be like his older brother, a Welton alumnus who made quite a mark and has gone on to be super-successful.
So no pressure for either of them, right? No pressure at all.
The two boys bond quickly, and Todd is welcomed into Neil's group of buddies: Knox the romantic, Cameron the goody-goody, Charles the jokester, and the dynamic duo Meeks and Pitts, who are constantly conspiring to build a radio (apparently, radios are a no-no at Welton).
The first few days of Welton life seem to go normally: boring books to buy, lectures to attend, hours to watch tick away. But when the group gets to Mr. Keating's poetry class, things start to shake up a bit. He shocks them by getting the class to leave the room and observe the pictures of long-dead alumni that line the hallways. He admonishes them to live fully, seizing every opportunity to experience life.
He even instructs them to address him as "captain," after the famous Walt Whitman poem "O Captain My Captain."
And that's just the first class. In the weeks that follow, Mr. Keating encourages the boys to find their own voices and look at things a different way. (One way he demonstrates this: he has them stand on his desk in order to see things from a different perspective.)
Mr. Keating also encourages them to consider poetry, rarely a beloved subject, as a valuable and important part of life, and wants them to learn to think for themselves about what it all means.
The boys find this pretty stirring, each in his own way. Todd, ever the shy guy, begins to get the guts to speak up and make himself heard. Knox is inspired to pursue the girl he loves, Chris, who has a boyfriend. And Neil decides to truly seize the day and tries out for the school play, despite his father's orders.
Mr. Keating's influence is also felt in another way: he inspires them to re-form the long-dead Dead Poets Society, a secret group of students who sneak off campus to read and experience poetry together.
But not everyone is a fan of the whole "seizing the day" thing. Headmaster Nolan and some of the other faculty members are pretty skeptical about Mr. Keating's shtick, and they don't think the boys should be encouraged to think or act so freely. So when Charlie—ever the prankster—writes a note to the school paper encouraging the admittance of girls to Welton and signs it "Dead Poets Society," the administration comes down hard on the English teacher (and the students). Headmaster Nolan becomes obsessed with finding out just who the members of the DPS are.
It all gets a little out of hand.
Still, the boys carry on with their commitment to live fully. Knox finally gets a date with Chris (after getting punched out by her boyfriend), and Todd overcomes his shyness to read a poem in front of the class. Neil gets the lead in the school play and totally rocks it, to the cheers of his fellow DPS members and the rest of the audience.
One person who ain't cheering? His father, who watches from the back of the theater. Neil's dad takes him home and tells him that he is enrolling Neil in military school. No more Welton, no more theater, no more Dead Poets Society. It's military school or bust.
As you may have guessed, Neil doesn't take this well. Instead of living a life without inspiration, he decides to take his life. After donning his Puck crown one last time, he uses his father's revolver to commit suicide.
The boys are devastated, as is the rest of Welton. Headmaster Nolan blames the Dead Poets Society and Mr. Keating's teaching style for Neil's death, and becomes even more obsessed with finding out just who is behind the secret group. When Cameron spills the beans and signs a statement blaming Mr. Keating for everything, the rest of the boys feel like they have to follow suit.
Adios, Mr. Keating.
But that doesn't mean they didn't learn anything. When Mr. Keating comes to class to collect his things, Todd stands on his desk to salute his "captain" one last time. After a few moments, most of the class does, too, despite the threats from Headmaster Nolan.
It's their final salute to their teacher, and it reminds him (and them) that his lessons live on.