Oh Captain, My Captain…

I don’t often blog about the death of celebrities. Don’t get me wrong, there are some who have died in my lifetime¬†whose deaths have been shocking due to their youth (Amy Winehouse, Peaches Geldof) and some who have left large holes in the lives of their devoted fans (Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston) and there was even one whose death touched the hearts of the world (Princess Diana), but today, I woke to the news of a celebrity’s death and it moved me to tears.

Yes, I am talking about Robin Williams, who will always be My Captain.

I grew up with Robin Williams. I watched Mork and Mindy re-runs on Sunday mornings. I watched Popeye the movie after my parents took me and my sister to visit the village were it was filmed in Malta. Films like Mrs Doubtfire, Jumanji and Hook were regular viewings in my home during my childhood. Even when my sister and I were at odds over what to watch, we could often reach agreement on Hook.

But as I got older, I encountered more and more of Williams’ work and it touched different places in my soul, aside from my sense of humour.

My Dad recorded ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’ off the television when I was a teenager. It was one of the films I remember watching with my whole family – those were rare. We howled with laughter and we cried and we sang to the music and when Dad bought me the CD soundtrack for Christmas that year, we memorized Williams’ rants and rambles which were as much of a joy to listen to as the classic 1960s music which I was growing to love. But behind that, there was a genuine horror of war, of the waste of young lives and the dangers of censorship.

It’s the truth. I just want to report the truth. It’ll be a nice change of pace.

Good Morning, Vietnam

A few years later, I watched Awakenings, which formed many of my opinions on the long term care of disabled adults. I now work in the care sector and have never forgotten the early lessons I learned from this film, about respect, dignity and the respect of people’s ability to make whatever choices they are able to.

What we do know is that, as the chemical window closed, another awakening took place;
that the human spirit is more powerful than any drug – and THAT is what needs to be nourished:
with work, play, friendship, family. THESE are the things that matter.
This is what we’d forgotten – the simplest things.


Some years later, my mother and I watched Good Will Hunting, a film which drove me to tears with its depictions of grief, loss and coming to terms with suffering. It gave me frames of reference for dealing with my own mental illness, sadness and trauma recovery, as well as my husband’s. It also told me that people who are dealing with those issues are not always right and not always saints, but none the less human for those facts.

You’ll have bad times, but it’ll always wake you up to the good stuff you weren’t paying attention to.

Good Will Hunting

And a few years ago I finally watched Dead Poets Society from start to finish.

I remember seeing bits of the film on a late night film slot on TV when I was a kid, but I was a bit too young to understand what was going on and was packed off to bed before the ending. A few years ago, I bought it cheap and watched it again.

I had qualified as a teacher some years before and decided not to pursue it as a career, because the training was not a good experience for me. Later I came to terms with the fact that I was very ill and broken during that time, and it was not solely the fault of the course, or the schools, or the mentors, that I had such a hard time (although some of them played their negative parts). I had thrown in the towel, given up, settled for administration as a career and was boring myself to a slow death behind various desks.

Watching Dead Poets Society again reminded me of why I had wanted to teach. Specifically why I had wanted to teach English. And why I wanted to teach poetry, and read poetry, and write poetry.

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute.
We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.”

Dead Poets Society

Not that long after I saw the film again, I got a job working on an army preparation course as an administrator. Four months into the job, the manager asked if I knew anyone who was a qualified teacher, specifically an English teacher. I told her I was and asked why.

A vacancy had arisen for someone to design, implement and deliver an English functional skills course to the students, who were aged 15-19, mostly boys, often disenfranchised with education and from a wide mix of difficult backgrounds (foster care, adoption, smoking, drinking, petty crime, criminal records, teenage parenthood…) This would not be like teaching in a school. It would be a whole new challenge altogether.

Carpe Diem

Dead Poets Society

Sieze the day. How often had I said that as a kid, and as a teenager, having heard it in a scrap of a movie and thought it was a good idea? How often had I encouraged my friends to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ when they were scared of something new? Sieze the day. I decided to take the job.

Private school 50s kids these were not! It’s not exactly a surprise that the other film which sent me back to teaching was ‘Dangerous Minds’ (or more specifically, the book which inspired it, ‘My Posse Don’t Do Homework’). But there was something in Robin Williams’ portrayal of Mr Keating which struck chords in me that would not die.

Aside from teaching grammar, sentence composition, spelling, formal language, speaking skills and close reading skills, I did my best to instill into each of the boys in my classes a sense of self belief, a sense of pride, responsibility and an appreciation for expression. In some cases it worked beautifully. In others, not so much, and I had days where I left my classroom disheartened, tired and exhausted, but they were outweighed by the ones where I felt I had made a difference.

John Keating: I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.
Nolan: At these boys’ age? Not on your life!

Dead Poets Society

Nobody expected my boys to think. They were written off in the early stages of their youth. I despised that mindset. I always have. I am devoted to the idea that it is never too late to restart, to learn, to begin again, to change the way you see yourself and the world around you. I tried my hardest to make them think. To make them ask questions, even if it was only to ask THEMSELVES questions. To make them see the world from their own perspective. Not the one that someone else had decided they should have.

I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.

Dead Poets Society

I don’t believe that it would have been possible for Robin Williams to have played the role of Mr Keating with anything like that conviction, energy or passion if he didn’t share the same ideals. Any more than I believe he could have played Sean in Good Will Hunting without genuine compassion and a belief in love. Or than he could have played Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning Vietnam without an absolute love for music and a horror of war. Or than he could have played Malcolm Sayer without a deep respect for human rights.

Robin Williams touched hearts because he put HIS heart into every role. That’s what made him a gifted actor, aside from being a gifted comedian. His ability to find the ridiculous and the humorous in every situation, no matter how bleak or empty, allowed him to show everyone the darker sides of human life with hope and encouragement.

Robin Williams is one of the reasons why I teach. He is absolutely the reason why I teach English. He is one of the reasons I write poetry, and read poetry, and love poetry. He is one of the reasons I work in the care sector for adults. He is one of the reasons I agreed to go to therapy, both for his words on screen and off camera. Through his portrayals, laced with his wit and infectious humour, he showed me that the world did want to be a better place, even if it was up against the odds.

Oh Captain, my dear Captain. We never met, but you had more impact upon my life, my soul, my self, than many of the people who have trodden through my life within arm’s reach. Your death came too soon, I had hoped to look up to you for another twenty years. But sleep well, dear Robin. Rest now. Just Rest.

Gooooooooood-byyyyyyye Vietnaaaaam! That’s right, I’m history… I’m outta here. I got the lucky ticket home, baby. Rollin, rollin, rollin’… keep them wagons rollin’, rawhide! Yeah, that’s right… the final Adrian Cronauer broadcast… and this one is brought to you by our friends at the Pentagon. Remember the people who brought you Korea? That’s right, the U.S. Army.

Good Morning, Vietnam

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