The death of Robin Williams caused me to reflect on his work. I’ve always liked him as an actor, but I don’t think I would have ever said that he was my favourite actor or anything like that. To me – and I think this is probably a limited point of view, betraying my own narrow mindedness rather than his – I felt that he was a bit of a one-trick pony, always playing the demented funny guy. I know he had more serious roles, but I never watched him in them, and that, perhaps is something that I should remedy. I did, however, take the time to reflect on the very first film that I saw him in: Dead Poet’s Society. Below I’ve written down some thoughts about teaching, life, death and Robin Williams.
When I took my first teaching job, I was convinced that I was going to change the system for the better. I was going to change the world, by teaching children to live life to the full, to suck the marrow from the bones of life and to carpe diem. I was, of course, convinced that I could be Mr Keating, the inspirational and tragic teacher of English poetry and literature that Robin Williams so brilliantly portrayed in Dead Poets’ Society.
At that point, I was teaching in a comprehensive school in a place in Essex called Chafford Hundred. The children who sat in front of me (I taught every single Year 8 English class that year, and precious little else) were a mix of white working class kids, the sons and daughters of city types, and the quirky hodgepodge of other groups that, for me, sums up modern day England. I loved them all, and hated them at the same time.
To say I was naive was an understatement. I remember starting off that year with a clip from Dead Poets’, convinced that i was getting through to them. I even made the kids look out across our oval to the shipping containers and ask themselves whether they wanted to spend the rest of their lives looking at the same view. I know, I cringe with embarrassment now thinking about my own arrogance. I had poems stuck up around the walls – GK Chesterton and The Donkey, If by Rudyard Kipling, lots of others. I don’t think anyone except me ever read one. I started each lesson with a quotation on the board, ignorant of the blank faces before me.
As I got older – and hopefully, a better teacher – I drifted away from my original idealistic vision of teaching. I still believed firmly in the power of education to create a socially just world. I just didn’t think I could make it happen in my classroom in one hour on a Friday afternoon. I also realised that Mr Keating didn’t play by the rules. He didn’t seem to have a syllabus to follow. He didn’t have standardised assessments. He didn’t have OfSTED inspectors trying to tell him how to teach. He didn’t have a public that seemed to feel that education was an optional extra and teachers are a drain on taxpayers. So I packed away my more ridiculous ideas, and got on with turning kids into exam-taking machines – and by all accounts, it’s something that I did pretty competently.
Now, older still, I find myself revisiting Dead Poets’ Society and thinking about it differently, again. I think I missed a central point in the story, when I was learning my trade as a teacher. Sure, Mr Keating doesn’t have to worry about exams and so on – but then again, neither do I or the students that I teach. Well, of course we have to worry about these things, but they’re not what we should be paying attention to. Exams are important. They are exit points and credentialling points. But really, what I’ve come to understand, and what I think Dead Poets’ Society was all about was that they are not as important as embracing every opportunity – every rich and varied moment – that life gives you. Seize the day, indeed.