'Dead Poets' teacher still at head of class

March 10, 1993|By San Francisco Chronicle

Samuel F. Pickering Jr., a gangly, arm-waving University of Connecticut English professor who was the model for the iconoclastic prep school teacher in the 1989 film "Dead Poets Society," says he has "learned to live with it" in the years since.

Mr. Pickering, a Tennessee native with a crackling, infectious laugh, was at Stanford University last week lecturing students and faculty on the writer's craft.

But he wasn't on campus long before he was being put through the hoops by a photographer for the campus newspaper, the Stanford Daily.

The photographer wanted him to jump up on a desk as Robin Williams did to lecture the class in his portrayal of the film's fictional teacher, John Keating.

Mr. Pickering tried to convince the young journalist that performing such acrobatics at 51 was a bit beneath his dignity.

"But if you're going to stand on your dignity before you'll stand on a desk, then you really have become a pompous ass," Mr. Pickering said.

"So I jumped up on the desk -- and cut my shin," he laughed, pulling his pants leg up to display the wound at a luncheon seminar with Stanford English professors and graduate students.

Lecturing from desktops, from outside a classroom window or while wearing wastepaper baskets on his feet are among the eccentric behaviors Mr. Pickering has used over the years to get his students' attention.

It was those bizarre techniques that Tom Schulman, one of his former writing students at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, Tenn., in the mid-1960s, drew on to shape the Keating character for his "Dead Poets" screenplay.

Mr. Schulman, one of Hollywood's most respected screenwriters, has credited his former teacher for his love of language and literature.

But at his Stanford appearances, Mr. Pickering played down his ability, or that of any teacher, to know how students will turn out once they leave the classroom.

Mr. Schulman was 15 years old at the time he took Mr. Pickering's writing class. "Heck, how can you tell at 15 who's going to be successful?" he asked. "The truth is, I don't have any answers to how to be a good teacher."

Mr. Pickering, an award-winning essayist, author of a half-dozen books and an authority on children's literature, recalled that his own favorite instructor was a "flaming racist, a bully, an alcoholic and probably should not have taught -- but he got my attention and I have never forgotten my Byron, my Wordsworth, because of him."

Nonetheless, there is little doubt that Mr. Pickering is a tough-minded educator, far more demanding of his students than the free-spirited Keating.

At times, Mr. Pickering said, he gets frustrated by the attention he receives because of his connection to the movie.

He has turned down urging from the Republican Party in Connecticut to run for Congress, as well as numerous requests to speak "just because I'm a character in a movie."

But, he said, "I can live with the 'Dead Poets Society' because of the books I have written. Otherwise I would be just an utter and complete cardboard figure."

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