After hearing the tragic news of Robin Williams’ death, we gathered with a group of friends to watch Dead Poets Society in an ad hoc tribute and remembrance of just one side of his extremely gifted and talented personality.
What a powerful piece and ironic prognostication of his own tortured future. Williams portrayed John Keating, a high school English teacher at an exclusive, conservative prep school in which he challenged his students to have an open mind, think for themselves, and find insights in both literature and life itself.
Clearly Williams brought his own character and spirit to the role as some of his class lessons contained shades of his frenetic comedy routines. Keating fought against the cookie-cutter, non-questioning, mind numbing curriculum and injected a love of learning by nurturing a free-wheeling, unconstrained spirit and message of “Carpe Diem,” i.e., seize the day. How topical a message as we face new attempts today to even further standardize education via a so-called “core curriculum” that stifles rather than inspires, that takes pegs of all shapes and attempts to hammer them into a restrictive, one size fits all, conventional round hole.
Dead Poets also brought back memories for me of several of my own John Keatings in my school career – teachers who lived on the edge, who dared to inspire their students. Like Keating, one high school English teacher in particular became a scapegoat and his firing inspired many us to risk suspension and more in protest. Forty six years later the details are foggy but I have a strong recollection of how his class sparked an intense appreciation for literature, for questioning, for standing up for what we believe in. This spirit fed our creative inclinations inspiring the publication of Opinion8ed’s first predecessor, an underground newspaper we called Frox, which was banned from distribution on campus. Several suspensions later, after an American Civil Liberties Union law suit of the School Board, the restrictions were removed and the ban on our rights to free speech lifted.
Carpe Diem. Long live the memory of Robin Williams.