One of my favorite movies set in 1959 New England at an all boys prep school, Dead Poets Society. A new English teacher arrives portrayed by Robin Williams who happens to be one of my favorite actors. Since his death, I find myself drawn to his movies and his various characters. A great loss that Robin Williams took his own life.
In the movie, one of the students, Neil, as all teenagers do-is trying to find his own path. His parents want him to go to Harvard and study medicine, but he wants to be an actor. His parents who are not well off have sacrificed much to send him to this school as they feel it will give him the necessary prep to attend Harvard.
In secret, Neil auditions for a play and lands the lead role. He forges a letter and signs that his father approves when in reality this is not the case. His father finds out, lectures him and forbids him to be in the play and once again reminds Neil of the sacrifices he and his mother have made, and that they expect him to go to Harvard and study medicine.
Neil does not want this path, but at the same time does not want to defy his parents. He has a ‘talk’ with his English teacher (Keating) portrayed by Williams. Keating suggests he speak to his father and explain. We must remember this is 1959, and one did not defy their parents; especially the good kids. Mr. Keating is a passionate teacher who wants to spark ideas in the minds of his students and he succeeds.
Later on Neil tells Mr. Keating (Williams) that he told his father his passion of acting and although his father was not happy, he could be in this play, and he performs opening night. Neil has his close friends there along with Mr. Keating. He performs well and realizes acting is his passion. Towards the end of the play his father shows up. He takes Neil home and instills the father lecture of: ‘Do as I say.’ The father is pushing his vision and agenda onto his son as he wants his son to have a better and easier life.
Later that evening, Neil unlocks a drawer where his father keeps a gun and commits suicide. He obviously felt this was his only path as his parents did not support his passion. Naturally, at this all boy prep school the English teacher is to blame and is fired.
Does any of this sound familiar? As a student or parent do you see yourselves at all in the above story? Putting your own wishes and dreams onto a child?
Conformity, following rules, being part of the crowd is not for everyone. We all need to find our own path, our passion and follow our heart. It is never easy to stand up to a teacher or a parent to say: ‘This is what I want.” We do not want to disappoint, but we are individuals. We each have hopes, dreams, goals, and sometimes it is not what everyone else wants for us i.e. parents.
Suicide is serious. In 1959 New England, in the upper socioeconomic brackets, it was unusual. For someone to choose to end their life, they must feel they have no other options available to them, that no one will listen, that no one will support their choices and decisions. In reality-what goes on in our minds is quite often of our own making. Life is worth living. There is so much to see, so much to do, so much to be a part of.
As members of society reach out to youth and adults who present as loners, who present as different, who might present with mental health issues. Take the time to listen, to support, to encourage that a professional become involved if you yourself are not a professional trained to assist in this role. No one should have to feel there is no other option than suicide.
By Victoria Brewster, MSW