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Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society, and My Teaching

[Copied over from Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mabfan/posts/10101583702080131 ]

Okay folks. This is about to get somewhat personal, but I feel I owe it to Robin Williams to note this.

I saw Dead Poets Society when it first came out, when I was still in college. At the time, I knew that part of my eventual career path would take me into teaching. I had had many teachers I loved (and yes, I was very lucky for it) and I did what I could to learn from them how to be a teacher.

But I also studied the character of John Keating, the teacher that Williams played in Dead Poets Society. And I tell all my former students now: I tried to model a lot of how I interacted with you guys on him. It's a lot harder to do it with Physics and Mathematics than with Poetry, but I tried to show you how much a part of the world those things were too. I tried to share my passion for Science with you, so that even if you didn't like Science, you could appreciate the passion. So that you could go out and find that passion of your own.
I also tried to show you all what the world was like. That it's filled with glory, and wonder, and hope, and dreams, along with all the gloom that comes along with being human.

Most of all, though, I tried to let you know that you all mattered.

One of my most precious possessions is a letter from one of my former students, who apparently felt suicidal at times in high school. She was one of many students I engaged with as a teacher, and I had no idea -- absolutely none -- what she was going through at the time. Some students you can tell are dealing with a tough time and you do what you can to help them through it. But others appear happy and cheerful, and you have no idea what's bubbling under inside. I'm privileged to have learned years later from a few of those students how much I helped them without even realizing it.

And as for the letter I mentioned... It's a letter in which this former student of mine basically told me that I kept her from killing herself in high school. I was gobsmacked when I received it some time after she had graduated. Not to make this about me, but in a way it was validation of everything I had been trying to accomplish. I made many sacrifices in my life during the time I was teaching, but apparently I had managed to save a life, without even realizing it. It meant that I mattered too.

And you matter too, folks. You all do. That was the message that Williams's character was trying to get across in Dead Poets Society, and that was the message I was trying to get across to you. And when I see one of you post about an achievement in your life, or when I think of those of you who came to help me out when my kids were born, I feel like I succeeded in some small way.

Robin Williams mattered too. I'd like to think that he knows that again.

And I thank you all. Let us take his legacy, our legacy, and make the best of ourselves that we can.

[Tom Schulman's words, spoken by Robin Williams as John Keating: "They're not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they're destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? - - Carpe - - hear it? - - Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary."]

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