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How Robin Williams Inspired Kids to Become Teachers...or Just Drop Out and Join a Band

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As a teacher, there are metaphorical life lessons you probably shouldn't impart on your students. For example, author Peter DeVries once offered the storied advice: "Write drunk and revise sober." Not exactly bulletin board material.

Though the preceding proverb is more philosophical than literal, there are much safer adages to share with young minds -- like Robin Williams' question of all questions in Dead Poets Society: "What will your verse be?"

I taught ninth-grade English before my current career as a journalist, and watching this movie with the late actor playing teacher John Keating was the first moment I thought I might want to go into education. I was a high school freshman myself at the time and the "What will your verse be?" scene was the first time school seemed relevant to life in general. That type of application is pretty much the Holy Grail for both educators and students.

In the movie, Williams tells his elite prep school students that it is OK to follow creative pursuits and that, essentially, a lucrative career but a bankrupt soul isn't worth it in the end. In the famous scene, he says:

"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for...What will your verse be?"



Following Williams' death Monday, a number of teachers shared this week how his role inspired them.

"I loved the film so much that maybe on one level it is the reason I became a teacher," Jonathan Taylor, a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Leicester, told the BBC.
Though I never personally taught Dead Poets Society, I found that Williams' lesson on finding your "verse" was foundational and a discussion opportunity for basically everything I taught.

When we talked about Atticus Finch's moral rectitude or Romeo and Juliet's capriciousness -- or an angry kid threw a desk (make that a desk-chair) at my head -- I attempted to steer the conversation in a way that was reminiscent of Williams' character. That is what is unique about English class: Characters, plot and themes are all avenues to discuss the type of person you want to be -- your "verse."

I learned some of my students had seen the movie and drew their own, uh, interesting life parallels. When a kid told me he wanted to drop out of school for his band, I told him he should definitely not do that. But then he pointed out that Ethan Hawke left college to act in the film and that he turned out well. Hey, we all derive our own convenient meanings.

The first time I saw the movie, I was in ninth grade, having just moved to a small town in Wisconsin from Utah. It was one of the first days of the school year and I was in the bathroom wearing a Baby T, baggy Silvertab jeans and Birkenstocks eating my lunch in a stall because I didn't have any friends yet. (Speaking of Ethan Hawke -- did I think I was Winona Ryder? Yes, I did. )

I had moved around a lot and usually conformed for the most part, but watching Williams implore his students to think about their verse and meaning in life made me think about my identity on a deeper level for one of the first times. As someone who was always the new student, I was lucky I could always start over and be whomever I wanted.

Dead Poets Society, of course, had a captive audience in early high schoolers -- the period when most people view it. We don't really even need CDC research to tell us that is the age when young people are employing more complex thought, expressing themselves more liberally and have an overall desire to form a stronger identity.

The teacher who showed the movie to us was kind of a John Keating herself. She was a student teacher, let us call her Mary and was unequivocally hip -- wearing long skirts and beaded necklaces. She was down to derail her lesson plans to talk about life, and I kind of wanted to be her.

In teaching, you are asked to pinpoint "Aha moments" -- the instant your students make a connection, understanding covalent bonds or that Macbeth's ambition was ultimately his downfall. Hopefully, Williams' scene will live on as the ultimate "Aha moment," connecting perpetual students -- of life -- with finding their verse.