It’s the first day of class, and the junior boys wake up extra early. Todd admits to Neil that he’s feeling nervous, and Neil assures Todd that he’ll get through the day without a problem.
Neil is a kind, supportive roommate—unlike some of the other Welton boys, he offers encouragement and support for Todd, who’s shy and nervous.
The school day proceeds, beginning with chemistry. The teacher sternly tells the junior students that they’ll be assigned work every week. After chemistry the students head to Latin, where Mr. George McAllister immediately launches into a long list of nouns. The next class is trigonometry, in which the teacher, Dr. Hager, warns his students to do their homework or risk being penalized on their final grades. By the middle of the day, Todd is feeling overwhelmed—there’s so much work to do. Steven Meeks assures Todd that he’ll be fine.
The passage conveys the stressfulness of life at Welton: students are expected to work extremely hard and study for their difficult classes. But in the face of these academic challenges, many of the students help each other succeed, as evidenced by Meeks’s support for Todd.
The next class is English. Mr. Keating walks into class without a jacket. Without wasting a moment, he jumps onto his desk and shouts, “O Captain! My Captain!” He explains that the phrase is from a poem by Walt Whitman—from now on, the students should call him either Mr. Keating or “O Captain! My Captain!” Mr. Keating admits that, years ago, he attended Welton. Then, abruptly, he walks out of the room, yelling for the students to gather their textbooks and follow him.
The contrast between Keating’s approach to teaching and the other teachers’ is clear: the other teachers focus on transferring as much information as possible; Keating tries to surprise and entertain his students. Keating asks that his students call him, “O! Captain! My captain!”, suggesting that Keating is more than just a teacher for the students—as we’ll see, he’s a leader, a mentor, and a father-figure.
Confused, the students follow Mr. Keating to the Honor Room, where they had previously waited to see Headmaster Nolan. In the room, Mr. Keating asks Pitts to read a poem (written by Robert Herrick) from the textbook: “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” The first sentence of the poem is, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” Mr. Keating explains that this line is meant to echo the idea of Carpe Diem, which means “seize the day” in Latin. Keating explains that the poem is trying to convince its readers to make their lives great before they die.
In this important section, Keating spells out his philosophy of life. Life is short, he explains, so people should “seize the day”—in other words, make the most of life while they still can. Unlike the other teachers at Welton, Keating uses his subject, literature, as a means of illustrating a profound, universal truth—in this case, the truth of following one’s passion and “carpe diem.”
Mr. Keating points his students to the walls of the Honor Room, which are lined with old photographs of Welton graduating classes. The students in the photographs, Keating observes, aren’t so different from the students in the room today—but many of those former students have died before achieving their dreams. Even now, Keating insists, the former students in the photographs are whispering, “Carpe Diem.” Abruptly, the bell rings. After class, Neil observes that the lesson was “different.” Cameron worries that Mr. Keating is going to test them on what he talked about, but Charlie laughs at him and says, “don’t you get anything?”
Keating ends his class with a profound point: most of the students in the old Welton class photographs are dead. By encouraging his students to look at old photographs, Keating is trying to make them think of their own lives, and see that they should make the most of life during their time on the earth. Hilariously, this profound point is utterly lost on Cameron, who’s more interested in getting a good grade than in truly learning about life. In other words, he’s an ideal Welton student.