It reached 77 degrees today, on this, the 24th of August. Blue sky, patchy white clouds, and the eerie absence of a Baltimore humidity that makes thousands of locals usually proclaim, “It’s not the heat; it’s the humidity.”
In Baltimore, it’s been neither this summer; just one late-spring day after another. Heat waves have lasted hours, not days, and nobody has been asked to be reminded of the endless days in winter where polar vortices and near-blizzards were making us stare at the summer months on the kitchen calendar.
The real cold front this summer, though, had nothing to do with the weather. It occurred on August 11, when news quickly spread that Robin Williams – comedian, actor, and goodwill activist – had taken his own life.
His death sent a chill in each of us for many different reasons, stirring an unsettling rush of emotions. Whether we felt the chilly sting of childhood memories, the angst of another life lost to depression and mental illness, or the dumbfounding shock of the loss of a great human being, we felt the chill deep in our hearts far longer than we thought possible.
Some of us feel it still.
I appreciated Williams’ stand-up humor or his role as Mork from Ork. It was his movies, though, especially Dead Poets Society, that made a mark on me at the most vulnerable months in my life.
“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” Robin Williams
Five events happened in the span of 66 days in 1989. They changed my life because I made the choice to realize my little spark of madness, open my mind for the positive, and accept the charge to live fully. For me, it was a 66-day gestation period of what Carpe Diem really means. Since those 66 days, I have lost my way on several occasions, but I keep coming back to my foundation from that experience.
On April 22, 1989, my father died.
On June 9, 1989, my mother and I took a trip north to New England for a change of scenery from the daily reminders of our lives without her husband, my father. We visited Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where the graves of Emerson and Thoreau moved me as much as when I spent the afternoon at Walden Pond, reading excerpts from “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.”
On June 17, 1989, despite my resistance to see anything that was popular or trending (we didn’t even know that word existed in 1989), I saw the movie Dead Poets Society with my best friend. I had just finished my second year of teaching, and the portrayal of Mr. John Keating by Robin Williams echoed the sentiments swelling within me from the death of my father and my trip to New England.
On June 24, 1989, 63 days after the passing of my father, 15 days after retracing Thoreau’s steps, and 7 days after seeing the movie Dead Poets Society, I wrote this in my daybook:
“Going to New England made an impact on me that I pray to God I will never lose. . . .Thoreau has made an impact on me like no other. His natural philosophies of “Simplicity” and “Carpe Diem” are the ways that I have been haphazardly living my life. I don’t want to overdo it, however. All I want to do is seize the day and have as much control over my life as God will allow me.”
“Yes. I love teaching, and I will continue to educate. But my style will change, and my focus will change. I can’t do it all as a teacher. So therefore, I must focus my classroom to resonate a very specific theme or intention. Much like the character Robin Williams played in Dead Poets Society, I want to teach my students to seize the day, to see their independent strengths and weaknesses, to dare to strike out and find new ground.”
And finally this:
“I will not be one of the masses leading my life in quiet desperation. I am a happy man, and I don’t have any regrets. I love this world, and I will strive to leave my small mark to make it just a little better place in which to live.”
On June 26, 1989, I started my 5-week journey with the Maryland Writing Project to become a certified Teacher-Consultant.
The fusion of philosophy, spirituality, and pedagogy had occurred within me, and I carried with me the spark to teach, to make a difference, to accept the dare to strike out and find new ground.
Twenty-five years later, on this chilly afternoon in August, on this Sunday before classes resume at sunrise tomorrow, I can feel the fire burning within me to teach, to inspire, to seize the blessed gifts of being a classroom teacher.
We are given so few chances in life to make a difference. It’s what we do with those chances that changes lives. I will not spend a moment of my time in my classroom grieving the loss of a great actor and human being; I will, instead, continue to ignite that fire to learn, to embrace the importance of individual strength and confidence, to engage my students in literature that resonates truth and passion for living, to empower them with the mighty pen so that they, too, can change the world with their words.
I slip on a light sweater and review my notes for the first week. My Daybook is overflowing with ideas about what to teach, and suddenly 180 days seems like such a finite number. I turn to day one, and focus.
Carpe Diem, I think.
For you, Robin, yes. But for 142 others as well who have a world of dreams around them.
It is time to share the fire. It is time to stand on new ground, and teach.