This morning, in the aftermath of Robin Williams’ death, I watched the Grand Central Station scene from The Fisher King: one of my all-time favorite cinematic moments. Williams plays a mentally troubled homeless man watching the woman of his dreams walk through a busy train terminal, and for the two minutes she’s passing through, the chaotic crowds coalesce into a grand, beautiful waltz befitting the high-vaulted splendor that is Grand Central Station. It’s a magical, perfectly choreographed moment where hundreds of strangers move to the step of one man’s love: a scene where Williams doesn’t say a single word, his expressive face speaking volumes.
When a special person passes through even the most ordinary place, the mundane becomes magical, at least for a moment, until they disappear in the crowd and the music reverts to hubbub again. That’s what it feels like this morning after Williams’ death: the waltz has ended, the crowds are no longer choreographed, and the sunbeams no longer scintillate with stardust.
It would not be an exaggeration to say I grew up watching Robin Williams. I was nine years old when Mork and Mindy premiered, and it was one of my favorite TV shows. As a brown-haired tomboy, I wanted to be Mindy, a free-spirited, Jeep-driving girl living in a city that sounded both outdoorsy and cool. When Mork moved into Mindy’s attic, Mindy didn’t lose an ounce of her independence: Mork wasn’t a boyfriend, after all, but an alien. Long before we learned that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, I learned from Mork and Mindy that the best way to relate to the opposite sex is through humor and an open acknowledgement that men really are from another planet.
Years later, Dead Poets Society came out when I was halfway through my undergraduate English studies, and it gave me a new role model in Mr. Keating, a renegade teacher who encourages his buttoned-up students to think for themselves. I can’t say Dead Poets Society made me want to be an English teacher, as I was already long along that path, but it did stoke the fire of my enthusiasm by invoking two of my favorite authors: Walt Whitman, whose image hangs on Mr. Keating’s classroom wall, and Henry David Thoreau, whose commitment to live deliberately served as the Dead Poets’ motto.
I wonder how many English majors have watched Dead Poets Society time and again, as I have, wishing they could be a Mr. Keating in some student’s life? Mr. Keating wants to change the lives of his students, and he does indeed succeed, but he learns too late that sometimes changes happens for the worse, not the better. Dead Poets Society is a tragedy that ends in death…but then again, so is life. Dead Poets Society is deeply romantic in its suggestion that a passionate teacher can inspire students, and as an undergrad English major, I drank that idea deeply, like a drug.
By the time Williams appeared as the working-class community college professor Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting, I was a graduate student living in Boston, where the film was set. By then, my Dead Poets Society dreams had been tempered by the reality of teaching actual first-year college students, none of whom stood on their desks and hailed me as “O captain, my captain!”
In my dreams, I wanted to be Mr. Keating, but in reality, I was more like Maguire, who in the movie teaches a course on “Dying and Bereavement” to a nearly comatose class of indifferent students. While his college roommate has become a revered professor at MIT, Maguire teaches at Bunker Hill Community College, where his talents are clearly going to waste. Most fans of Good Will Hunting remember the funny scenes where Matt Damon wins Minnie Driver’s heart by schooling snobby Harvard boys with his smartass wit, but what I remember from the movie was the awkward moment of recognition as I watched Maguire try to engage his students. George Carlin once said a cynic is nothing more than a disappointed idealist, and Williams captured that truth perfectly in his portrayal of a tender-hearted but tired professor who has weathered many heartaches.
Robin Williams is remembered and beloved as a comic, but what always resonated with me was the way he captured the vulnerable, serious, and (yes) sorrowful side of his characters. Yesterday when I heard of Williams’ suicide, my first thought was, “Didn’t he know how many lives he touched?” I sometimes think being a teacher is a lot like being a stand-up comic: there’s nothing like the thrill of connecting with your audience, but there’s nothing worse than the sensation of crashing and burning when your material falls flat. When the laughter and applause subside, there’s nothing left but the nagging question, “But was I good enough, really?”
I understand mental illness well enough to know that no number of fan letters, awards, and accolades can lift the shroud of depression: depression is, after all, a bug in the brain that makes it impossible to believe such affirmations. Still, I find myself wishing that at the split second before he slipped from this station to the next, Robin Williams fully realized the joy, wonder, and delight he inspired in so many of us.
The title of today’s post comes from Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to make much of Time,” which features memorably in a scene from Dead Poets Society. The photos illustrating today’s posts show some of the roses and rosebuds I’ve gathered (digitally) over the years. Rest in peace, Robin Williams, and thank you for so many years of laughter, life, and joy.