I was 16 when Dead Poets Society starring Robin Williams hit cinemas. I wasn’t allowed to see movies because of my family’s strict fundamental Christian religion, but I snuck to the theatre anyway. I had heard the previews for the movie on—of all places—NPR, which my brother played in the car as we drove to church on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings.
Amy and Marsha, two of my cousins and best friends, went with me after church on the Sunday of opening weekend. They liked the movie well enough, but they were at a loss as the houselights came up and the credits rolled. I was sobbing uncontrollably. One of them, Marsha most likely, retrieved a wad of toilet paper from the bathroom and came to sit on the other side of me. I was still crying when the second showing began. Without discussing it, we sat through the movie one more time.
I watched again as the boys’ parents—fathers, mostly—force them into roles they don’t want. I connected especially with Neil (Sean Patrick Leonard), whose rigid father demands perfection without regard for feeling, for passion, for humanity. His father reminded me so much of mine, who demanded that same level of perfection from me and deemed me worthless because I could not achieve it. I understood Neil’s desperate need to escape from the suffocating standards at any cost.
Neil holds his father’s pistol in his hands. As I watched that scene unfold on-screen I felt the cold steel in my own hands. I felt the tip of it against my forehead. And I wept for the character who sees no other way out. It might have been fear that made me return my father’s gun to his closet. I worried that he would blame my mother. But there also burned a fierce flame of hope, the ridiculous notion that I could escape my father’s—and the church’s—impossible standards.
Ironies mount upon ironies as I ponder Robin Williams who took his own life as Neil does in the movie, as I nearly did 28 years ago. Today, August 11, 2014, is my 41st birthday. Today I celebrate my life and my talents, my friends and my family, my students and my inspirations. My life is not perfect, but I live on my terms, which I began to define as I sat in the movie theatre so many years ago.
John Keating (Robin Williams) is an English teacher who encourages his students to be free thinkers. He uses the art of poetry and literature, of words, to inspire his students to move beyond the confines of their worlds, to Carpe Diem: seize the day. Because of this role that Robin Williams played, I have “Carpe Diem” tattooed on my right hip. Because of Robin Williams’ artistic contribution to the world, I became an English teacher. I painted “Carpe Diem” on the podium that I and my students used in my classroom. I showed clips from this movie, and we studied the literature that Keating shares with his students.
Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time” remains one of my favorite poems.
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
old time is still a’ flying.
For this same flower that smiles today,
tomorrow will be dying.”
Never mind Tennyson’s “Ulysses” that Neil reads during one of the secret meetings of the revived Dead Poets Society, which still guides my wanderlusting feet at age 41.
. . .Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
Perhaps most ironic of all is that John Keating’s favorite poet is Walt Whitman. I now study at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey where Whitman spent the last 8 years of his life. I recently toured Whitman’s last residence, and daily I run by his statue that resides in the center of Rutgers’ campus. During the movie, Keating quotes Whitman numerous times. It begins when he challenges his students to call him “O, Captain, My Captain.” He is, after all, the pilot of the ship he and the boys are navigating. He is Ulysses at the helm as he encourages his crew that (to quote again Tennyson’s “Ulysses”):
. . .we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Keating urges his students to find themselves. He begs them to ask the question that Walt Whitman does in his poem “O, Me! O, Life!” Keating gathers his students around him and recites “Uncle Walt’s” words:
O ME! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.
Because of Dead Poets Society, because of Tennyson, Shakespeare, Herrick, Whitman, but most of all because of Robin Williams, I painted that poem on the front wall of my classroom. Countless times throughout the school year, no matter if 8th, 9th, 12th graders sat in those chairs I pointed to that wall and asked my students, “What will your verse be?”
At 16 years old, after sitting through back-to-back screenings of what I see as Robin Williams’ seminal work, I made the decision to seize every day, to Carpe Diem. I chose to write my verse, to sail beyond the sunset, to gather my rosebuds.
At the end of the movie, Keating’s students demonstrate their solidarity for their beloved teacher who is fired after Neil’s suicide. They stand on their desks and salute their captain. This happened to me once in my 13-year teaching career. In 2006, the best year of teaching I ever had, my seniors stood on their chairs as the bell rang on the last day of class. There was not a dry eye in the room as they saluted me. I didn’t feel inspirational in that moment. I was brought to my knees. I was in awe—inspired—by the depth of understanding and wisdom that my students possessed. In that moment 8 years ago, I felt the power that my teachers—including John Keating—imparted to me.
My teachers were the first adults to believe in me. They were the first to tell me that I was capable of great acts, of success. I had to sit in the front row of my seventh grade Social Studies class because of alphabetical seating. I usually chose a back corner seat where I could stack my books and hide behind them. But every day Mr. Nedoh walked into class and stared me down. The bell would ring. And on most days he would look from me to the class and say, “Look at her. This one’s going to be a leader.” I don’t know what he saw in me, but I didn’t want to let him down.
Years later, in that one moment in my own classroom, I felt like I had finally properly thanked him for inspiring me. I felt like I had finally shown him that he wasn’t wrong, that I really could be a leader. But it wasn’t just Mr. Nedoh that inspired me. Mrs. Almes, Mr. Weber, Madame Allen, Mrs. Gandee, Mrs. Toth, Mrs. Haskins, Mrs. Conger, Mr. Shimko, Madame Earnest, Mr. Gibson, Ms. Stoltz-Brandes, Mrs. McNamara, Mrs. Georgiadis, Mr. Hazlett, Mrs. Longfield, Frau Himmelreich, Mr. Engler, Mrs. Menke, Mrs. Fath also played specific roles in helping me believe in myself. I strive now, as a teacher/instructor/adjunct professor, to pay forward their encouragement and carry on the legacy they instilled in me.
Robin Williams stands among them. Mr. Williams, your performance in Dead Poets Society has never left me. I wish you could have fully known what a profound impact you had on your audience. Thank you for inspiring that young, desperate 16-year-old girl. You rescued her, and because of you I teach and hope to inspire others.
Staff Writer: Jann Simmons Andiamo