Robin Williams' characters helped kindle my careers as a coach and a teacher.
I read the John Irving novel "The World According to Garp" my senior year of high school in 1978. Garp, a wrestler and wrestling coach, was an inspiring character for me, then a Pennsylvania prep grappler. In 1982 Robin Williams brought Garp to life on the big screen. The character, a wrestling coach, inspired me to become the head wrestling coach of Haverford College near Philadelphia in 1983. For three years I valiantly attempted to lead the Fords to a victory over archrival Swarthmore. While Swarthmore extended its winning streak against us, I built up our program.
Later, Williams closed out the 1980s with his seminal performance as prep school English teacher John Keating in "Dead Poets Society." He was nominated for an Oscar for that role. I had just begun teaching high school English in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, in 1988. As a young teacher, my inexperience and the effort it took to control a classroom made think often about quitting. But then I'd watch "Dead Poets Society" and Williams' Keating helped me stick with it.
I frequently showed the film to high school English students and it evoked some of the best discussions I've experienced as an educator. Ironically, many of those discussions revolved around the suicide of the main character, Neil Perry, after Keating tells him to "seize the day" ("carpe diem" in Latin) and pursue his dreams of acting. However, Perry's authoritarian father's reaction to his acting leads to the young character's suicide. (California authorities said that Williams, who struggled with addictions and depression, hanged himself.)
At Wantagh High School, showing "Dead Poets Society" is not part of the curriculum, but perhaps I'll follow Williams' lead as the unconventional Keating and begin my 27th year of teaching English by showing the film as a tribute to a brilliant entertainer, who twice wonderfully influenced my life.