Robin Williams in ‘Dead Poets Society’ changed my life
Robin Williams would have been 64 today. It’s hard to believe it’s been almost a year since the world lost the brilliant, spirited, electric performer, and we still miss him every single day. To honor Williams’ birthday, here’s one of our favorite stories about his impact he had—and will continue to have, for many years to come.
I was devastated when I (along with the rest of the world) learned that we had lost Robin Williams. There are few performers who have given as intensely and generously to the film canon. There are so many iconic Williams roles (Genie, Mrs. Doubtfire, Peter Banning) but my favorite performance of Williams’, the role that had the most influence in the shaping of my personhood, was that of his Walt-Whitman-quoting-carpe-diem-loving English teacher John Keating in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society.
Dead Poets Society, for the uninitiated, takes place at a conservative and aristocratic boys’ boarding school in 1959, and follows the adventures of a group of male students (including Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and Josh Charles) as they are inspired by their maverick English teacher Mr. Keating (Williams) to love poetry, think outside of the box, and yes, of course, seize the day.
In the 25 years since its release, the “inspirational teacher movie” has become a genre, and a genre that has a tendency to be exploitative. It always makes me a little sad when Dead Poets Society is relegated to the subgenre of “inspirational teacher movie.” I mean, it’s absolutely true, it is a movie about a teacher who is inspirational, but there is nothing exploitative about this film. I don’t just like this film. I don’t just even love this film. Dead Poets Society has had such a seismic impact on my life that every time I re-watch the film, the aftershocks reverberate.
Keating is an out-of-the-box teacher, taking the boys outside for class, encouraging them to stand on their desks, rip pages out of their textbooks, write poetry to woo the ladies, and meet in a cave in the middle of the night to celebrate the verse of the dead white poets that came before them. The thing about Keating’s unconventional teaching style is that he’s not being a manic pixie dream teacher to be original. He’s teaching out of the box because that is exactly what his trapped-inside-the-box students so desperately need.
They don’t need to be taught how great life inside the box is, because that’s what all the rest of their teachers are telling them. They need someone to tell them that there are rewards to taking risks. They need someone to tell them what they don’t already know, by which, of course, I mean they need someone to TEACH, and I mean REALLY TEACH them.
At one point, Keating stands on his desk and asks his students: “Why do I stand up here? Anybody? I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.”
Robin Williams so embodied this role of a brilliant teacher—the kind who could actually change your life—that it’s hard to separate the man from the character. Like Keating, he proved that being original, taking creative risks, and seeing things in a different way, were all crucial elements in becoming an exceptional person who does exceptional things.
As a teacher (I teach lots of artsy stuff like acting and creative writing) one of the most important things I’ve learned is that doing the job doesn’t just mean communicating curriculum, but imparting life lessons. No matter what subject you are teaching, as a teacher you have the opportunity to help students develop their real-world muscles, to help them figure out what kind of learner, communicator, teammate, leader, and person they want to be.
When I see Williams’ John Keating teaching his ass off in DPS, what I see is a man working himself to the bone to give his students everything he believes they need. When I think back on my great teachers, I think of the teachers who were in the business of giving and giving—even when they were afraid they had given all they had, they just kept digging deep and giving more.
Not every great teacher has the same approach as the brilliantly portrayed Keating, but, for me, they’ve all had the same effect. Through their courage and generosity, they have changed their students for the better. I am down-on-my-knees grateful every day for my teachers, because they transformed me from the person I was to the person I so badly wanted to become.
And Robin Williams was one of those teachers I will never forget. He set the bar so high and made all of us teachers want to be John Keatings. It is a privilege to try to live up to those kind of near-impossible standards.