I remember that night like it was yesterday…. I was old enough for a moped, but not old enough for a car. I and some friends went to see a movie downtown in the little Michigan tourist town I grew up in. It only had one screen–one of those hundred year old theaters that got transformed into a place to watch movies–and, for some reason, that night the line to get in was around the corner. We found some seats before they were all taken. The air was electric…. And from the very beginning to the very end, the movie Dead Poets Society spoke to me like no movie had ever spoken to me before.
I haven’t been walking around thinking, “Man, Robin Williams really means a lot to me.” Not until this afternoon, that is. All of a sudden, Facebook is filled up with remembrances and quotes and pictures and clips from movies, and my eyes are filled up with tears. I grew up laughing with Mork & Mindy. I watched Good Morning Vietnam on HBO by myself as a kid, and I learned about speaking the truth when it is hard. Oh Awakenings…. Oh Hook…. Oh Aladdin‘s Genie…. You taught me lessons about what it means to be human. I think Birdcage might have been the first gay couple I had seen in a movie and genuinely LIKED. I felt my theology being stretched in What Dreams May Come, and as you said those words–“It’s not your fault”–over and over in Good Will Hunting, I felt like you were saying them to me. And a part of me believed you….
But nothing compares to what happened that day, in the old Grand Movie Theater, as we watched Dead Poets Society. It was like we had all been hungry, but we didn’t know what for. But we had been waiting for it. Waiting for you to whisper, “Carpe…. Hear it? Carpe…. Carpe diem…. Seize the day boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” There was a poet in me too, Captain! I wanted to Sound my Barbaric YAWP over the Rooftops of the World! I was inspired! I wanted to suck the marrow! I was a ROMANTIC…. I finally had a word for it.
Those word spoke to me, and changed something in me. But something happened that day that I doubt I will ever see again in my life. Most of the way through the film, after Neil dies and the school is looking for a scapegoat, the boys get together and that stupid, red-headed kid says he finked on Mr. Keating. He says, “If you guys are smart, you’ll do exactly like I did.” And at that moment when the words “Let Keating fry” were met by Charlie’s fist, I cheered. I YAWPED in celebration, and I lept out of my seat onto my feet… hands in the air. Seconds later, I remembered where I was, and for a moment I was embarrassed for standing up and cheering in a movie theater…. Until I looked around, and I saw at least half of the people in that theater on their feet with me. Cheering. I still get goosebumps thinking about it today: The better part of an audience, leaping to their feet at the same time, enraged and inspired…. It’ll never happen again.
And as that movie ended, I wished I could have stood on those desks with those other boys–actors and strangers who, after just two hours, felt like my brothers–and told you Robin Williams/Mr. Keating/father-figure that what just took place meant something to me. Something beyond simply enjoying a movie. Something that would fan the flame of a song writer in me. A lover. A poet. A romantic. Something that would send me toward an English Major in college. Something that still inspires me as I write this here tonight. Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I often feel that way…. But I still hear those words you said to those boys–my brothers: “Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!” I’m still trying.
Thank you, Robin Williams for your life. The powerful play goes on, and you have contributed a verse…. May you finally know peace. And rest.