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Carpe Diem – A Memory of Robin Williams

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The sudden passing of Robin Williams has sent shockwaves through the entertainment world and beyond: an artist blessed with talent, fame and fortune, struggling with the demons of depression to the point of taking his own life. Soon the internet was flooded with condolences messages – but there was also the remembrance of a truly great talent and a celebration of his artistic legacy. Which for me, meant revisiting Dead Poets Society.

I watched the movie when I was 13. On a fine morning, our literature teacher (ironically, and not coincidentally, a truly inspiring character with a passion for poetry) pulled together two classes and decided to snub a traditional lesson to show us the movie instead.

To truly picture the scene, you need to understand we’re talking about a small-town school in 1990 Italy. Which means 50 rowdy kids, high from the approaching summer and the buzz of skipping a lesson, bouncing on plastic chairs in front of a chunky TV set already outdated for the time. The teacher fiddled with the VCR unit – of course the tape needed rewinding – and after pressing all the buttons on the remote, some of them twice, the screen lit up with an anti-piracy message. This was duly fast-forwarded, the picture on the screen shaking with horizontal lines of static. Oh, the good old days!

The film started, but our behaviour didn’t improve. Soon the class begun to morph and shift, the kids interested in the movie gravitating towards the front rows, while everyone else engaged in a war of paper-ball throwing at the back.

In these conditions we watched the movie, straining to catch the dialogue in the background noise, filling each other in on the words we missed but thought were important. We probably re-wrote half of the script.

To our 13 year old selves, the Carpe Diem message was as clear as spring water. Of course you should follow your dreams – what else is there to do? Adults often look back to their teenage years with a fond smile, thinking boy, what did I know back then? But I think 13 year old me got it right. Mind still uncluttered by disappointment and self-doubt, she saw it more clearly than I never would in my later years. And yet, with our middle school terms coming to an end, there was an edge to that message, for soon we would have to leave the comfort of middle school and pick a path to further our education. We would have to choose, the prospect of which was exhilarating and daunting at once. Because it’s true and there’s no way around it: choosing means navigating a rough sea, the cresting and falling of dreams against the expectations of parents and of society. What if we got it wrong? It could be huge. It could be life and death.

The noise in the class subsided in the scene preceding Neil’s suicide. The haunting music, the desperation brilliantly conveyed by Robert Sean Leonard, the excruciating pace of the build-up as we see the character slowly, so slowly retrieving his fathers’ gun from the drawer and stare at it.

The whole room fell silent. We all watched captivated the remainder of the movie, shouting expletives at Dylan Kussman’s betrayal, and feeling uplifted when, following Ethan Hawke’s lead, the boys stand on their desk in a final display of defiance and support for their teacher, their captain.
One of my friends nudged me with an elbow and nodded towards our teacher, who stood at the back of the class pressing a tissue against her eyes.

It’s a good memory.

dead poets

Re-watching the movie yesterday, I could appreciate once again Robin Williams’ inspired turn as the romantic teacher, so perfectly set off by the terrific performance of the young cast and the beautiful script.

The Carpe Diem scene seems only more poignant in the light of the tragic passing of Williams. So I am going to end on that, a reminder of the beauty and truth of Horace’s verses:

Don’t ask, it’s not for us to know, what end the gods have given me or you, Leuconoes,
don’t tempt the Babylonian Numbers.
How much better it is to endure whatever comes
Whether Jupiter has allotted you many more winters or this one,
which even now wears out the Tyrrhenian sea upon the opposing cliffs, is the final one.
Be wise, strain the wines, and since life is brief, scale back far-reaching hopes
While we speak, the envious time will have already fled:
Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in tomorrow.
(Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero)

R.I.P. Robin Williams
1951-2104

Originally posted on my blog.

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