There is no question that people are mourning Robin Williams for many reasons, among them his vast body of work that delighted, moved, and entertained millions of people. We remember the laughter he incited, as well as the tears, and we recall him in the movie Patch Adams wearing a clown’s nose as a reminder of the severe dichotomy of a comic’s life – he who makes us laugh the hardest is usually the saddest one of all.
Robin Williams rose to fame based on his rapid fire delivery, quick mind, and physical elasticity. When he first appeared as alien Mork on the sitcom Happy Days, it was a revelation to watch someone work the scene so well, so fluidly, making all the other actors (even the juggernaut character of Fonzie as played by Henry Winkler) seem inconsequential. Mork would soon be seen in his own series, and that launched Williams into the stratosphere as a star of films, stand-up, and TV specials.
In my life I recall the joy of seeing many of Williams’s performances, including his stand-up act, which to this day impresses as something so over the top that it would be mentally and physically impossible for any other human being to accomplish. But the most important performance of all in my life, is perhaps his most constrained, strongest role as teacher John Keating in the powerful film Dead Poet’s Society. Because of seeing this movie when I did, I stopped myself from making what would have been the biggest mistake of my life.
I was in my first year of my doctoral program in English, and besides taking a full load of courses I also had to teach two freshmen composition courses. Fellows also had to be prepared to substitute for sick professors as needed. Feeling inundated by too many obligations as my second semester was winding down in the spring of 1989, I had hit a wall. The students, while earnest for the most part, seemed overwhelmed and not the least bit interested in writing or literature. Professors who already had their doctorates for the most part appeared to be grumpy, going to and from class with clouds of steam coming out of their ears. I thought, “What am I doing here?”
I remember sitting on the grass at the university and watching everyone rushing along paths to and from classes. I saw one girl chasing after a professor to ask a question, and he picked up his pace and told her that she needed to come during office hours, and everyone seemed to want to be anyplace else but there. I thought, “If this is the way education is, I want out now!”
A week or so later I made a decision that I would not return in the fall to start my second year of courses. I would think about changing careers, maybe working in Manhattan for a publishing house as an assistant editor or even doing work in my father’s business. I knew I was done and believed my career in education was over.
Then that weekend in early June I went to see Dead Poet’s Society. Williams as Keating is a revelation; he is the teacher every student wishes that he or she had, and he is the wake-up call for every teacher to realize how important inspiration and exhilaration are in the classroom. Keating is not only a master teacher, but he empathizes with his students, who learn that he once had been a student at Welton and also belonged to the secret Dead Poet’s Society.
There are so many memorable scenes in the film, but the most haunting is when Keating reads Robert Herricks’ famous poem and tells them that “gather ye rosebuds” is really the same as the Latin “Carpe Diem” – seize the day. He shows them pictures of all graduates long gone and now dead, and reminds them that they too will one day be gone. It is not only a so-called teachable moment, but it is a fine example of a teacher caring for his students beyond the classroom in the interest of their well-being, so much so that he manages to infuse literature with a life lesson as well as accomplishing the difficult task of getting them to actually like poetry.
After seeing this film I recalled why I wanted to be a teacher – it was also films that inspired me. Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love and Peter O’Toole in Goodbye, Mr. Chips had stoked the fire of my passion for teaching, and now as it was waning to a flicker of a flame, Williams came along and doused it with enough lighter fluid to engulf a city block. I walked out of the theater knowing I not only still wanted to be a teacher, but one as good as Mr. John Keating.
Many people recall the scene when Keating stands on the desk as he teaches and later invites the students to do the same to see the world from a different perspective. We recall the best teachers we had were the ones who didn’t have us glued to our books but to their every word. Some of us went through all our school years never having a teacher like Keating, and hopefully some of us had that precious experience here and there that made us realize that there was more to life, as Hamlet says to Horatio, than we have ever dreamt of in our philosophy.
In the end of the film after iconoclast Keating is fired, and old stuffy headmaster Nolan is teaching the class by sitting at a desk (strongly suggesting to all teachers that is a very bad idea), the students rally in his support, calling him “My Captain” as many of them stand on their desks in protest of his dismissal despite Nolan’s screams to get down. As we see Keating from their perspective, looking down at him, we know in their elevation that he has been successful in passing the torch – these boys will do more than remember him, they will seize the day and change their lives.
After all these years I remain in education and I have Robin Williams to thank for it. I remember him for all his many wonderful roles, but the one as John Keating is my favorite because he so fully embraced that part that there is not one second in the film that I don’t believe Williams is the best teacher in the world. Over the years whenever I have any doubts, I recall Williams whispering “Carpe Diem” to his students, and then I get right back on track and seize my own day.
Thanks for passing the torch, Robin Williams. In pace requiescat !
Photo credits: ontohinbd.com, forthewords.blogspot.com, huffingtonpost.com,Powered by Sidelines