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12 August 2014

"Oh Captain, My Captain." A Farewell to Robin Williams, the Man Who Brought Mr. Keating to Life.

Robin Williams as Mr. John Keating
in Dead Poets Society
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I became a bona fide admirer of Robin Williams with “Dead Poets Society,” skillfully directed by Peter Weir and with an impeccable script by Tom Schulman. In the film, Williams played the unconventional English teacher Mr. Keating. Prior to “Dead Poets Society,” I had seen Williams in “Good Morning Vietnam,” and I thought he was extremely hilarious and deserved to win an Oscar for Best Actor but acting awards are not generous to comedians. Williams was more than a comedian. He was a perfect example of a character actor or a character comedian. In “Dead Poets Society,” he adeptly combined humor with drama, in fact, you can even say wit, but without drama and comedy cancelling each other out. Williams accomplished the one of the most difficult feat in acting, that is the humorous and the tragic complementing each other and thus creating a fascinating and more humane character.

I love Mister Keating. He taught poetry not formalistically but spiritually and emotionally, the way poem should be regarded. Poems are not just words arranged in mathematically designed lexical architecture. Poems are not comparable to durable buildings. Poems are as chaotic and orderly as rivers, mountains, storms, a rain drop, a snow flake, the Aurora Borealis and so on. Poems stand on their weakness and strength. It is the human being in the form of words.

Mr. Keating also taught me to cease the day. Carpe diem was my mantra.

“Dead Poets Society” came at a point in my life when I was standing at an intersection. I did not know what to do and what course I should take.  Should I forget my silly notion of writing poetry when clearly no one wanted to publish my work? Should I give in to my father’s request to study law? Luckily, with Mr. Keating, I realized that writing poems is a valid and worthwhile endeavor. Even if the poem was not akin to the works of poetic geniuses of our time, if the emotions that brought about its existence are genuine, the poem still has value because it came from the heart of a person unapologetically feeling.

Mr. Keating also taught me that “poetry” is not confined in words. Regardless of our chosen endeavor, we create poems. Even if we become businesspeople, we create poems. Poetry is that unexplained harmony of things that should contradict but somehow create perfection like an great orchestra or like a giant ball floating in the darkness of space. Mr. Keating taught me that above all else, we are the “living poem.” The words stay the same but the meaning changes as the days thread on, and we, like a good poem, change as each reader read us and dare to give us a chance.

Neil Perry (Played by Robert
Sean Leonard)
Of all the young characters in “Dead Poets Society,” I connected to Neil Perry (played by Robert Sean Leonard). Neil was a high school student who wanted to be an actor but his strict father wanted him to become a doctor. Like Neil, I also felt stifled and lost at that age. Unfortunately, in the film, (spoiler) Neil committed suicide and some viewers and critics thought that that was the flaw of the movie. On the contrary, I think that is the triumph of the film: the Neil Perrys of the world can live because the Neil Perry of the movie died on our behalf. His death was our saving grace, a catharsis of some sort. We regard his sense of hopelessness as an illusion and so his death is a tragic waste. When I left the theater, I was in tears but I did not think of suicide because I understood the point of the film. Above all else, Mr. Keating guided me out from despair.

Mr. Keating also inspired me to become a teacher, particularly an English teacher. Although, I have strayed from my vocation in the past, I still keep coming back to teaching.  I have always said to friends that I would like to teach in university when I turn sixty. By that time, I hope to have a better understanding of the written and physical world so I can assist the next generation.

It saddens me to hear the passing of the man who brought Mr. Keating to life, and in a way, Robin Williams has always been Mr. Keating. Both are more human than a fictional character, flawed but endearing, strong but vulnerable.  I think Mr. Keating has also morphed into other Robin Williams’ characters, most notably as the psychiatrist in “Good Will Hunting,” another favorite movie of mine.

Today, the world lost a brilliant teacher, a witty jester, and a superb actor. Thank you Mr. Williams for the laughter and the inspiration. 

“Oh Captain, my Captain!”

Rob San Miguel
Your student

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