Robin Williams: mentor to a generation

Teachers, football coaches, youth workers, probation officers. Whenever a male figure of authority got a little too compassionate for comfort, we would mock them for being a Robin Williams wannabe.

Even as sneering teenagers, though, we knew that our sarcasm masked something more serious: a defence mechanism against pep talks that were in danger of working.

More than 20 years after those days, this week’s outpouring of tributes following Williams’ death reflected not just widespread appreciation of his comic genius, but also a deep and collective recognition that this was a man who, in two of his more serious roles, tutored and inspired a generation.

As the schoolteacher John Keating in Dead Poets Society (1989) and as the college lecturer Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting (1997), Williams assumed the improbable role of silver screen shepherd. A mentor to those for whom scout leaders had been replaced by Super Mario.

YouTube clips of those performances were this week subjected to a stampede of footnotes from bereft fans. “I feel like I’ve lost an uncle,” read one comment. “You changed my life, dear Sir,” read another. Users of other social media sites started uploading photos of their friends and colleagues standing on their desks proclaiming “O Captain! My Captain!” just as Keating’s pupils do in the final scene of Dead Poets Society.

In that film, the teacher played by Williams encouraged his students to challenge the 1950s conservatism of an expensive US prep school and the rigid expectations of their fee-paying parents. It was a world away from my local comprehensive school, but Williams’ performance lent the film a cringe-proof universality. My schoolmates – many of us second-generation Asian immigrants – heard in Keating’s voice a rallying call against the stifling expectations of our own parents. And for expectations, read obligations. And for obligations, read family guilt-trips. We were all supposed to reward their sacrifices by becoming high-earning accountants or lawyers or doctors (or at least dentists). At any rate definitely not journalists.

Williams’ subsequent role in Good Will Hunting, which won him an Oscar, felt like a reprise of that earlier role – as if answering our need for Keating’s ongoing guidance when we got to college and university. Less youthful, but no less idealist, Williams’ character cemented the actor’s status as realism’s answer to the benevolent bearded archetype from fantasy and sci-fi (see Tolkien’s Gandalf, George Lucas’s Obi-Wan Kenobi and, more recently, JK Rowling’s Dumbledore).

It is perhaps this mythical quality that explains why Williams’ death has reverberated the way it has. We don’t feel like we’ve lost a teacher or uncle or even a surrogate father – we feel like we’ve lost the ideal embodiment of all of the above.

Now my schoolmates and I are middle-aged. For some of us, the tables have turned so that we are the ones trying to dole out the pep talks. But the question we have had to confront this week is whether the manner of Williams’ death – by suicide – in any way detracts from all the life-affirming lessons he taught us.

At a time of geopolitical crisis, Williams’ death has sparked a front-page debate about depression and suicide. There is the added cruel irony that, in Dead Poets Society, the suicide of a pupil proves to be Keating’s undoing. We are trained to think that suicide implies failure – a sign of a life lived unwisely or of bad decisions made. And just like his pupils in the film, we desperately don’t want to contemplate the idea that our silver screen teacher may have been wrong.

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