There are a number of tributes coming, as there should be, for Robin Williams. He was a great person, from what I’ve read and heard over the years, and one of, if not the, funniest people to grace our lives. I am no different than most people eulogizing or recalling how much Mr. Williams made us laugh, cry, and think about life. However, I too wish to add my thoughts on the affect he, in one of his roles, had on me and how it relates to my currently former career as a teacher.
In order to do this, I have to go back to when I was in high school. I had a friend who, out of respect for him, I will simply call Ted. Ted was a fellow member of the band with me in high school and ahead of me in grade. He was part of a section in the band who was favored by the director, who shall also remain anonymous. As a member of this favored section, he believed that he could confide in the director about anything and be assisted. He thought the director cared about him as well as everyone else in the organization. I thought this as did most people in the group.
I learned otherwise.
Ted chose a day when I was working in the band classroom for some reason to come in and state he needed to speak with the director. I told him that Mr. Smith (also not his real name) usually came in around a certain time to check on things. Ted asked if he could wait in an adjacent practice room and if I would tell Mr. Smith that he was there to see him. No problem. This happened on occasion where a student would want to see the director out of class time, especially during one of the lunch periods. So, Ted went into the room and I continued with my usual routine of setting up for band later in the day and making certain music was in each folder if new music was being assigned.
Mr. Smith came in and I told him that Ted was waiting to talk with him. Mr. Smith went into the practice room. A few minutes later, he stuck his head out and asked me to get another teacher or principal to help him. As odd of a request that it was, I did so. When I returned, I heard the sound of glass shattering from within the practice room. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Smith came out and returned rather quickly with the school’s security person. Soon, the janitor arrived as Mr. Smith, the security person, and Ted, who was now wearing handcuffs, were leaving the room. I could smell alcohol coming from the room. Ted had gone into the room to drink. But it was more than that. Ted came asking Mr. Smith for help. Rather than attempt to help him, Mr. Smith chose to only see that Ted brought alcohol into the school and see that he was disciplined for this illegal act. I’m certain that Mr. Smith may have thought he was helping, but what Ted needed was someone to listen to him. Mr. Smith did not have the time to do that.
A couple of days later, Ted committed suicide with a gun while sitting in his car in a rural area of the county. I had asked Mr. Smith if Ted had said anything about wanting to do this, but Mr. Smith ignored my question. He also showed little remorse for Ted. At that point, I decided that if I ever became a teacher that I would never allow a student, if I could help it, to feel as if at least one person in their life cared.
Fast forward a couple of years when the movie “Dead Poets Society” came out. In that movie, Robin Williams played an English teacher by the name of Mr. Keating. In this role, he portrayed a teacher who cared about his students beyond the book knowledge of the subject he taught. He cared about them as people. He wanted them to think for themselves and live their lives for themselves. In this movie, a student commits suicide and the administration of the school, after coercing a few students, pin part of the blame on Mr. Keating. The final scene shows Mr. Keating cleaning out his belongings from the room as class is being conducted by the head dean. As he starts to leave, one of the most shy students stands on his desk and calls to Mr. Keating with the words from the Walt Whitman poem, “O Captain, my Captain.” Mr. Keating turns to find this student and a number of others also standing upon their desks and calling out the same words. His words to them were, “Thank you, boys.” He did what every good teacher sets out to do with their students, teach them to think for themselves as well as learn the subject. Beyond that, teach them to stand up for what is right and to learn about themselves as much or even more than the subject being taught.
I know this was simply a role that Mr. Williams played, yet there seemed to be something in his eyes that showed he too, outside of the role, cared about people. I wanted to become a teacher like that. I also became an English teacher. In some ways, I hope I was a teacher like that for my students. One who cared about them outside the classroom and whom they knew would be there to listen to them for more than just my subject.
Robin Williams was a great comedian. He was also a father and a humanitarian. The Armed Forces of the United States acknowledged how he brought laughter to troops asking nothing in return. His involvement with the St. Jude’s Research Hospital for Children is evident, even in one of the roles he played when he portrayed the real person Patch Adams in the movie of the same title. Always in his eyes there seemed to be this loneliness or sadness of a sort. Perhaps he wanted to make the world laugh, but realized that those who wish to make the world feel pain outnumber the abilities of just one man. I’ll remember him as a man who made me laugh, cry, and think about life a bit more deeply. I’ll also remember him as the man who helped me find my calling to teach, if even for a short while.
May he rest in peace and bring laughter to the hereafter.
Thank you, Robin Williams. For everything you did and everything you left us.