O Captain! My Captain!

While most of my entries have been about technology, this one won’t have that focus. Instead, I want to reflect on and remember someone who influenced me as a teacher, someone who I never met but who brought out some of my best traits in the classroom.

Robin Williams.

And yes, if you guessed I mean his role as English teacher John Keating in the classic film Dead Poets Society, you are indeed correct. That role, that movie, profoundly influenced the teacher I am today. His energy, his flair for the dramatic, his humor in making a boring subject fun – fictional or not, Robin Williams played one hell of an English teacher. Who else could take Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” and make it so memorable? Ironically, one of the most moving parts of the film comes when Mr. Keating, along with his students, must cope with the suicide of one of his prized pupils. Williams’ character felt a sense of guilt for encouraging the student (Neil Perry) to follow his dream of acting, even though Neil’s father forbade it. That scene, among other ones, still gets me every time I show it to my students, and I have a feeling it will take on a greater meaning now.

Of course, there was more to Robin Williams than that one role. He was the actor who could make you bust a gut laughing in Good Morning, Vietnam or Mrs. Doubtfire, then bring you to tears in Good Will Hunting. Does anyone remember his portrayal of Popeye? Sure, the movie was iffy, but only he could even attempt to turn a cartoon character into a real-life, spinach-eating sailor man. The guy was pure genius, plain and simple. He had his share of duds, but who amongst us hasn’t experienced failure? I know I have, and I sure you have as well. Yet, for some reason, his failures ultimately led to the shocking news that he is no longer with us.

We have lost so many famous people over the past year, for all sorts of reasons. While I feel sorrow for any life lost, for some reason, this one has affected me more than others have. Maybe it’s for the reasons I stated above: his enduring presence in some of my favorite films. Or maybe it’s because he put on such a positive face in public when, in reality, he had been suffering from terrible depression in private, so much so that he felt trapped with no way out but one. Whatever the case, Robin Williams showed us happiness, showed us sadness, and – in his death – showed us his humanity, that even the best are, after all, human.

Carpe diem indeed.