I saw “Dead Poets Society” during the summer of 1989 while I was a fellow at the Aspen Festival. We were so enthralled with the film that we fellows formed our own society that summer and often gathered together at a park and read poetry to each other. Robin Williams’ John Keating sealed my idealism about teaching and I knew that I wanted to be that kind of teacher, who challenged hearts and minds to open. The tragic ends of that film were so poignant because they reflected certain truths that our human society can only properly deal with in films. The same people who wept at the end of that film would be the ones who would fight tooth and nail to prevent the kind of “out of the box” teaching that Robin Williams’ character championed.
This is the world we live in! I left five different schools and quit academia after my own alma mater that taught me to imagine beyond the obvious, proved to be just one more of those places that fears anything that challenges one to think. I have enjoyed the happy precariousness of freelance teaching because of the word “free”! It has become a luxury to enjoy an honest relationship with a student whereby a true pursuit of excellence and self-development is the objective. And yet for every student, with whom I make a lasting partnership, I am disappointed by five or ten who are more interested in ultimately boxing themselves in with a wrapping of comfort.
This is not strange. It is only hurtful for idealists like me who are blessed to see the best in everyone and cursed not to realize that most are scared to death to become the best of themselves; that it is more manageable and more acceptable to see oneself as normal and small. The idiot teacher who dares to suggest to such a person that they can be more will only be punished for pushing them to places they are not ready to explore.
Yet just when you imagine you can write a student off as limited by their own fear, someone writes to you 10 years after you have taught them to say: “I kept all of my lesson tapes during our time together, and today I found the box of tapes and listened to them crying at the realization that I had all this wisdom offered to me at a time when I was not ready to take it. Yet, the seeds were planted and now I am ready to water them.”
Teaching is an adventure wrought with joys and disappointments perhaps in equal measure. An experienced teacher has to be close enough to see the diamond beneath the dirt, but distanced enough to see the total person and realize that not everyone has the patience to dust the dirt away and free the diamond. Still, our job is to inspire, challenge and encourage. And we have to be strong enough to know that mostly, we are only there to show the way. We will seldom be there to see the student achieve their goals.
Teach them with all our hearts but let them go because they are not ours!
I can hardly remember a time when Robin Williams was not in my life. Whether the alien, Mork, or the Russian immigrant in “Moscow on the Hudson” or “Ms. Doubtfire,” or the innumerable portrayals that have shaped my generation, Mr. Williams left an indelible mark, not least of which is the perfect model of what it is to be a teacher. It is a tough job and our society does not value it hardly at all these days. The fakes, the “rainmakers” the two-bit swindlers are more valued today because they sell immediate gratification; they sell a MacDonalds’ education commensurate with the fast-food culture we live in. In the midst of this decadence, Mr. Keating, along with Miyagi and Yoda shine forever bright.
Rest In Peace, my fellow artist/teacher whom I never met in real life. You have left us with a legacy that we shall not soon forget. In a strange way, we all feel we got to know you, because you opened your soul so widely that each one of us may find a mirror of ourselves in one of your unforgettable portrayals.