– John Keating (played by Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society – 1989)
Today I celebrate the life of Robin Williams, who tragically passed away earlier this week. He brought joy and laughter to thousands of people over generations and leaves behind an amazing legacy of talent. To some, he was an extraordinary comedian; to others a gifted actor; still others would consider him a compassionate humanitarian. But to me he will always be John Keating, newly appointed English teacher at Welton Academy; a teacher I have spent my entire career aspiring to be.
We often hear of actors talk about “the role that changed my life”. Robin Williams’s role as John Keating in the 1989 movie Dead Poets Society, in fact, changed MY life, both professionally and personally. I was a first year teacher in 1989 when I sat down in a seat at the Dunbar theater in Vancouver one evening with my best friend Cheryl to watch a new movie, staring Williams, about a teacher in a private boys school. Little did I know that that experience would impact my life and my teaching career more than any experience since.
The movie moved me, inspired me, transformed me like no other. Since that first viewing, I have watched it perhaps a dozen more times. I have watched it alone, with my cat, my mum, dad, my sisters, my husband and my boys. I have laughed when Dalton answers a phone during a school assembly, claiming God was on the other line. I have wept when Mr. Keeting comes into the classroom to collect his personals and the boys honor him by standing on their desks and call “O Captain, my Captain”. I started a Dead Poets quote book and have been collecting quotes ever since. My sister bought me a Carpe Diem t-shirt the year the movie came out and I still have it. I have a collection of Walt Whitman poetry permanently beside my bed. Whenever I hear Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, I visualize boys kicking soccer balls while reciting poetry. When anyone asks me what my favorite movie of all time is, without hesitation, I reply, “Dead Poets Society”.
Now one could argue that my post this week is not really about Robin Williams – but more about a movie. Once could also argue that any actor could have played the role of John Keating. But to me, Robin Williams WAS and always will be John Keating – a teacher with an extraordinary gift. Keating taught with passion and joy. He was the teacher who invited every student to stand on their desk because he wanted them to see the world differently; a teacher who made a class of adolescent boys grow to love poetry and literature because he made it come alive for them; a teacher who inspired, encouraged, challenged, celebrated, respected, and loved his students. A teacher I wanted to be.
Mr. Keating was not a conventional teacher. In the private boys school in 1959 he was seen as a bit of a rebel. He did not follow the prescribed curriculum as it was laid out. It was not enough for him to simply assign and assess his way through the English textbook, rating poems on the Pritchard scale. He was creative and innovative and his lessons caused both his students and colleagues to often raise their eyebrows and question his motives. But through his unconventional teaching style, he breathed life into the minds and hearts of his students.
Directly from my Dead Poets Quote Book, here are a few examples:
He taught them the power of words:
“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world”
He taught them see the world differently:
(Standing on his desk) “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.”
He made them laugh:
“Language was developed for one endeavor boys, and that is – to woo women.”
He taught them to appreciate the beauty of poetry:
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. So medicine, law, business, engineering… these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love… these are what we stay alive for.”
Long before Reading Power, John Keating was teaching his students to think:
“When you read, don’t just consider what the author thinks, consider what you think”
Long before Writing Power, John Keating was teaching his students about triple scoop words:
“So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose.
He encouraged them to be individuals:
Now we all have a great need for acceptance, but you must trust that your beliefs are unique, your own, even though others may think them odd or unpopular, even though the herd may go, “that’s baaaaad.” Robert Frost said, “Two roads diverged in the wood and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
He encouraged them to make their mark in the world:
To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?
He inspired them to find their passion:
“Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!”
The movie, ironically, ends in a tragedy for which Robin Williams’s character is ultimately held responsible. But I do not wish to dwell on the sad ending of the movie or the sad ending of Robin Williams’s life. Today I am focusing on the extraordinary impact that this one movie and one actor had on this beginning teacher. Because of Robin Williams’s brilliant performance in Dead Poets Society, I am a more passionate teacher, a deeper thinker, a better writer. Over the years since watching that movie, I have tried to find my own passion, to live life to the fullest, to “seize the day”, to make my life extraordinary, to “contribute a verse to the powerful play”. I have been teaching for over 20 years, striving every day to be like John Keating – teaching my students not only how to read and write but to love words, to nurture ideas, to think deeply, to find their passion and make their mark in the world.
Today, I celebrate, honour and give thanks for the exceptional life of comedian and actor Robin Williams and his brilliant portrayal of a young teacher named John Keating – the “captain” who changed my life.