We celebrate the genius of Robin Williams by remembering one of his most affecting roles…

by: Michael Shields

The impact on my burgeoning spirit at the time was hard to quantify. I was eleven years old, and even that is too kind a number in regards to my wholesale rawness. Maturity would find me many years later, but somehow while in the obstinate hold of puerility, I encountered John Keating, and I was affected so deeply that I would never be the same.

From the moment he took helm of his classroom, encouraging the young minds before him to rid their textbooks of its introductory pages; ones that chronicled a mathematical equation utilized in quantifying the pleasure of poetry, I was enthralled. And when he led his students into the vaulted halls of the aristocratic Welton Academy, to a photo of a class far removed, whose lives were perched upon their prelude, the value and brevity of life was probed. They were just like you, he reminded his students, molding their very resolve with tranquil finesse, “full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel.” Like myself, the young adolescents in the photo whole lives were in front of them. But their journey had been frozen in time by the photograph and belied the truth that their lives had come and gone, and they now “fertilized daffodils.” But they are far from at rest Keating implied, as now they desire for the wide-eyed students before them to ascertain what they wished they knew then. “You can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Carpe – hear it? – Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” Astonishing.

“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

With apologies to the many educators who inspired me, took chances on me, and believed in me, John Keating just may have been the most stirring teacher I ever had. From my first viewing of Dead Poets Society to the countless times I revisited its sage advice, I have been taken fully by Keating’s guidance. This idea, that life is yours for the taking, that it is exactly what you make it, has acted as entryway to virtually all the paths I have roamed. At every turn, Keating called for his students to seize control of their lives, to make them meaningful, no matter the cost, and I was dead set on heeding his call. Keating made poetry, writing – words – cool, as he shepherded his flock, ridding them of their various preconceptions regarding the manliness of expressing themselves creatively. I was, I remain, putty in John Keating’s hands.

“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.” 

I have gone on to fall deeply in love with words and with writing. I am not implying that I owe this affection to the teachings of John Keating, but I am not dismissing the notion that it had a considerable impact. In the capacity of an editor at Across the Margin, I have had the great privilege to riffle through many a trusting writer’s work. Often I will ask them, when the word choice isn’t capturing an idea properly, or simply isn’t seductive enough, for them to “woo me.” I am never quite sure if any of my fellow writers recognized my reference or not, if they too learned from John Keating that you must “avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy.” Or that “A man is not very tired, he is exhausted.” And “Don’t use very sad, use morose.” If they are privy to the fact that “language was invented for one reason – to woo women – and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do.” Even if the reference sailed over their heads, they always get the point, and it satisfies me deeply to invoke this maxim. And in that routine exercise, I have thought of Robin Williams portrayal of John Keating almost daily.

“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.”

There is no question credit for the film, and the role of John Keating, must be laid to rest at the feet of the novel’s author (N.H. Kleinbaum), its screenwriter (Tom Schulman), the director (Peter Weir), and the production team and its fine ensemble cast. But it was Robin Williams, whose energy and passion brought the role and the film to life; whose unyielding fervor caught us off guard, and captivated us. We were hypnotized by his confidence, inveigled by his passion, and possessed by his words. John Keating was, simply, Our Captain.

Robin Williams was far from just a comedian, and Dead Poets Society taught us that. He had chops. He would go on to fully exhibit the depth of his range, and the immensity of his talent, playing highly affecting roles in The Fisher King, Awakenings, and Good Will Hunting. But it was in Dead Poets Society where it became incredibly apparent that Robin Williams was capable of literally anything. For many of us he is at the core of so many of our first memories; our first laughs, our first tears. His countless works are perpetually merged with our childhood. The joy and insight he lavished upon us is immeasurable, as is the pain so many are feeling on this day.

“You’re only given a little spark of madness, you mustn’t lose it,” Robin once said. Although today we grieve for the loss of a man who brought us so much pleasure, that spark that scorched so ferociously within him lives on. It lives on in his films that entertained and touched millions of lives, in the words and ideas which seemed to burst from him like a breached dam, and in the abounding tales of his genius ((It is chronicled that scriptwriters for “Mork and Mindy” would leave entire pages blank, labeled, “Mork does his thing.” Unbelievable.)).

 “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?”

John Keating, invoking the exalted wisdom of Walt Whitman, for who I owe a boundless debt of gratitude for the introduction, spoke of the powerful play of life that goes on around us without end. And upon this stage we can contribute a verse, write in our part, and the words we use are our prerogative, our opportunity. Robin Williams’s countless verses resoundingly linger, they bounce around our world, and echo within in us with his manic, uninhibited energy. And now he beckons from the great beyond, still inspiring legions of indebted devotees. “Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it?” What will your verse be? “What will your verse be?” — “Make your lives extraordinary……”


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