Born in the early ’70s, I’m a solid Gen-Xer, which means I grew up seeing (and idolizing) Robin Williams from the time I was little and he was doing his manic and totally unique brand of stand-up on Johnny Carson (yes, my family let me stay up that late, because, you know, it was the ’70s after all). And we all loved hearing his “nanoo, nanoo” every week on Mork & Mindy. In the ’80s, I used to stay up late, sneak down to the den and watch his movies on cable while my parents slept. I really loved him as a Russian immigrant in Moscow on the Hudson, but the role that really changed my life was when Williams played unconventional English teacher John Keating in 1989’s Dead Poets Society. In fact, that movie, arguably even more than Nirvana’s Nevermind, defined the attitude of my entire generation. Robin Williams taught us to “seize the day,” and we have been ever since.
I watched Dead Poets Society as a shy, angsty 15-year-old who, like the students in the movie, couldn’t reconcile what society expected of her with the desire to follow her own dreams. The movie didn’t sound all that great, in all honesty, and the only reason I’d even wanted to see it at all was because I knew it had been filmed a year earlier at the Delaware boarding school my childhood best friend then attended. But the second Williams appeared on-screen, I was hooked. His performance was electric, passionate and deeply, deeply human. It was real. I’d never seen anything like it.
Our school teachers were nothing like this, and the kids of my generation needed bigger and more important lessons than what we could find in textbooks. John Keating may have been a fictional character, but his words, brought magically to life by Robin, spoke to us like nothing else had ever done. The doors to his classroom in a made-up town, in a made-up story, populated with actors in period costume, opened up and let us all in. John Keating became everyone’s teacher. Fight the status quo, he taught us; think for yourselves; seek beauty and truth. Never conform just because it’s safe. Be brave, and stand up for what’s right, even if those around you say it’s wrong.
Generation X wasn’t a generation of slackers, and our motto wasn’t “whatever.” “Carpe diem” was our battle cry, and 26 years after we first saw Dead Poets Society, it still is.
My peers and I grew up to become artists and writers even when our parents warned us we’d never make any money. Friends joined the Peace Corps, went on missions and pilgrimages, and fought for social justice all over the world. Young people went to law school and medical school, not for the riches and prestige, but to advocate for the disenfranchised and heal the sick. We embraced the arts and fought for the underdogs. We valued our individualism, and freed from the need to conform, we searched for our true selves and stayed true to what we found. Instead of bucking the status quo, we completely redefined it.
I wanted to be a teacher because of Robin Williams. His John Keating showed me that miracles can happen in a classroom, and that learning is so much more than reading the book and answering the questions at the end of the chapter. I became the teacher I wished I’d had. Later in life, I chose to go to grad school and when faced with the decision of what to major in, I said “carpe diem” and followed my heart: creative writing. I have no regrets.
We Gen-Xers are in our 40s now, but we haven’t stopped changing the world, or metaphorically standing on our desks. We’re still seizing every day, and we have Robin Williams to thank for this. Through the silver screen, he was one of our greatest teachers. O Captain, My Captain, you are so deeply missed.