Paying tribute to them while still alive


St Francis Bay freelance journalist Beth Cooper Howell takes a look at the other side of life in Woman on Top, her weekly lifestyle column for The Herald.



For most, the highlight of one’s adult life might be marriage, birth or a milestone trip to South America. For me, it was watching 40 teenage girls standing on their desks at the end of my final year of teaching high school English and saying to me: “Oh Captain, my Captain”.

I love my kids, my man and the fun jobs I’ve done, but nothing before or since has moved me the way that experience did – and that’s the reason I cried when actor Robin Williams died.

It’s a modern conundrum, this worship and love of celebrities, as though we knew them over cocktails, or could so easily have been friends, had Hollywood not been in the way. It’s illogical and we know it – especially when we grow up and can’t blame our flutter-eyed fandom on hormones or a passing crush.

But there is a vital and telling difference between temporary devotion to a superstar for his looks and presence on-screen and a lifelong appreciation of someone who sold us a story that becomes our own – not just in adolescence, but forever.

There was a massive outpouring of grief over Williams’s demise, possibly more so because he took his own life, according to the papers. If the clown who made us laugh so much was that unhappy, where does that leave us?

There are very few ordinary people who can live as largely, loudly and successfully as he did and yet, even that wasn’t enough.

Psychologists analysed this global sadness and concluded that it was perfectly sane and normal to be taking his death so personally – Robin Williams was the type of chap who educated, entertained and touched people on a grand scale; much as a beloved older brother might, or a popular politician. Acting just happened to be the method he used.

After watching Dead Poets Society, a sentimental, dramatic interpretation of teenage individualism, I incorporated Robin Williams’s life philosophy in that film as my own. He played an English teacher named Mr Keating – and if you were lucky enough at school, you may have encountered a Mr Keating too, as we did.

On our last day in Anne Peltason’s class, we stood on our desks and said, “Oh Captain, my Captain”. A few years later, at varsity, friends and I started our own Dead Poets Society in honour of the same film.

And finally, when I became an English teacher for a while and taught that film as part of the visual media syllabus, my own pupils stood on their desks, letting me know that I’d succeeded at being Mr Keating, too.

Throughout my life, since first encountering Robin Williams as that character, I have tirelessly encouraged anyone who’ll listen, to think for themselves; to practise carpe diem – seize the day.

Thanks to social media, I know that the majority of my former pupils do that now, remembering what I told them as captain of their ship.

And that’s why I’m still so sad about this death – because quite often, it’s those who leave us too soon who have taught us how to live.

Leave a Reply