In light of the sad news this morning, that Robin Williams has died at the age of only 63, I wanted to (somewhat selfishly) document the inadvertent influence he has had in my life, and reflect a little.
Today has been full of stories, memorialising Robin Williams and the impact he had on generations of children. I look back fondly on childhood movies – though the fact is that I had actually never seen much of his work until I was at least 10 years of age. I only saw Aladdin the entire way through at 18, I was afraid of both Flubber & Jumanji for an embarrassingly long time and Mrs Doubtfire (as I discussed with a friend today) was funny but hardly formative. However, at 15 years of age my life was altered – and I don’t hesitate to say altered – by seeing Dead Poets Society, and it is for this that I love, and thank, and will remember Robin Williams. Excuse me for talking about myself for the entirety of what follows, but I wanted to share my own story.
In year 9, I changed high schools. It was a time of immense stress and distress in my life and to say I took it badly would be an understatement.
In the midst of this upheaval, I was given two blessings-in-disguise, which would go on to shape my life, though I could never have known it at the time. The first of those things, was an English teacher who arrived at my high school in Term 2. She taught us both English and History, and from the first day that she was in the classroom – she was unlike any other teacher I’ve ever encountered.
In History, far from the regular Year 9 curriculum (to this day I honestly couldn’t tell you what Year 9 history students should be learning), we analysed the political motives behind the outbreak of the First World War, interrogated the European settlement of Australia including the documentation of Indigenous people by early settlers, the trope of the ‘noble savage’ and a whole host of other subjects that I honestly couldn’t comprehend at the age of 15. Was it advanced? Yes. Was it too complex? Possibly. But it encouraged us to push ourselves – which as high achieving students we had rarely encountered before, and most importantly it asked us to challenge our views, and the beliefs we held to be self evident.
In English, we studied the usual, Romeo & Juliet; some contemporary Australian novel that I cannot for the life of me remember the name of; but when it came to Poetry, she had us look at the political purposes and uses of poetry and we analysed poems by Indigenous Australian poets and discussed the relationships between poet and Country and once again – were asked to extend our capacity to the brink. I learned more that year than I can ever possibly put in to words, and I regularly hope that one day I’ll bump in to the teacher in question in the street (as I did once, a couple of years later on, before my epiphany and need to wax on about politics at all times).
She was passionate about feminism, and politics, and questioning that which you accept unquestioningly and she deeply desired us to feel the same. ‘A box is never just a box, girls’ she would insist as we suggested that maybe a poem could be taken at face value, and we rolled our eyes and muttered ‘yes miss’.
I’m sure you can see where this is going – she(consciously or otherwise) attempted to fashion herself into our very own Mr Keating a la Dead Poets Society, and though her success in the grand scheme is questionable – she certainly had a lasting impact on me.
And, in some kind of crazy coincidence – the film that we were to study that year, turned out to be Dead Poets Society. The second of my life-altering blessings.
Despite the typical adolescent moaning about having to watch a movie which (shock horror) wasn’t from the 21st Century, I was captivated from the first viewing and totally under Mr Keating’s spell. To say that the movie itself was important for me isn’t sufficient. I have watched it countless times in the years since (even once made my totally bored sister sit through it – sorry Olivia!) and it never loses its magic. The character of Mr Keating, brought to life with that Robin Williams magic is one that will never become less fond to me; the lessons to be learned from DPS aren’t ones that were immediately apparent, but have been absorbed and executed through repeated viewings and in it’s entirety, it speaks to me. In the muddled memories of Year 9 (I’m making myself sound so old here – looking back through the fog of the years) the characters of John Keating, and my teacher have somehow merged; she was unquestioningly the one teacher I had throughout high school for whom I would stand on a table and declare “Oh Captain! My Captain” (and her abrupt departure from my school draws entertaining parallels – suffice to say she was too radical for the conservative institution of all-girls education) and it was on the backdrop of Robin Williams’ portrayal that I learned what it was to be inspired by a teacher.
The influence of these two is somewhat intangible, what Keating preaches is an attitude more than concrete action, and the influence of my teacher while evident in my everyday behaviours, is difficult to pin down beyond ‘question what you are told’ and the importance of pursuing justice. The value of language, of literature, of poetry beyond something “cute” is impossible to overstate, the implicit imperative for each student to enter the world and strive for what they love, to be real and to be true to yourself, and to ‘seize the day’ is advice that too often goes unspoken. I needed to hear it, though, I think more people do than we realise.
Thank you, Mr Keating, thank you, Robin Williams, thank you.
Oh Captain! My Captain!
Rest in Peace