I am gut-punched.
I keep playing in my mind how he picked out the belt he wanted to use, the surety he must have made that it was secure in the door, the measuring around his neck and where to loop this death. I did not know Robin Williams. But I knew Mr. Keating, and he changed everything for me.
If you are between 35 and 40, you probably know exactly what I mean.
The film “Dead Poets Society” was released in 1989, and at some point between that year and 1992, we all saw it. We were at a unique point of adolescent gestation—old enough to understand some depths of life, but young enough to be malleable before being subject to the feudal system of high school cafeteria seating.
The film, through the electricity of Robin William’s performance as John Keating, had an astonishing message:
Make your lives extraordinary. No matter what anyone tells you, words and ideas can change the world. Your parents may not actually know everything.
This may seem cliché or self-evident at 36, but when we were 12 year-olds deeply steeped in a bubble gum world of Paula Abdul, New Kids on the Block, detention for passing notes (remember folding those?), Girbaud jeans and Caboodles.
We thought high school would be just like “Grease” and we’d be Pink Ladies chocolate malting with T-Birds. We wore enormous buttons of Joey MacIntyre and got dropped off at the mall by our parents on Friday nights. This message of thought freedom and living deeply was a Thor hammer pause on our Walkman. Or, at least mine anyway.
My world was blown wide open. The film was a peaceful call to the revolution of the intellect, a non-violent crusade to live life against the grain. I was a student in Mr. Keating’s classroom. I drank it in like an island castaway beneath the first rainfall. I couldn’t open my mouth wide enough for how thirsty I was.
Music was changing at this time too. Airwaves once dominated with songs of short-skirted sex, drugs and money were snuffed out almost overnight by the deep dirty grit of grunge rock that rejected such superficiality and moaned of angst, meaning, the existential and the emptiness.
Sometimes we had no idea what they were even saying (I’m looking at you, “Yellow Ledbetter”) but it didn’t matter. We knew it was saying something raw and lean and it shattered our sterile world.
We could not text someone when there was something difficult to say. We could not make up a fabulously fake life on Facebook. We were just there, absorbing it all, letting it whittle and expose us.
For 25 years, there have not been many decisions I’ve made without first hearing Mr. Keating in my head imploring me to take the difficult, untraveled road.
And while I know he was fiction, I cannot divorce the man Robin Williams from the English teacher, Mr. Keating, who has traveled alongside me all this time. Which is why still today, I am gutted. It is unimaginable to me that the man, who charged me to make my life extraordinary, took his own.
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Editor: Travis May
Photo: Movie still