Sunday, September 14, 2014

NFL Looks Like The Titanic – Women and Children First Rule Needs To Be In Place

First appeared on Blogcritics.

Let me start by saying that I have been a football fan all my life, specifically a NY Jets fan. I have braved the coldest days I’ve ever known, sometimes sitting on an ice-encrusted seat, to watch Gang Green play back in the days of old Shea Stadium. I wistfully remember the Joe Namath era, he the one New York sports star glittering brighter than Broadway itself. Sadly, Broadway Joe is a memory now and seems to have come from a time of innocence, but maybe it is because I was so young and didn’t know anything but wanting my team to win.
nfl 3Flash forward to our current era, and the National Football League has become something that has morphed into a miasma of drugs, murder, and mayhem. I think it’s time to face the facts – the NFL is like the Titanic, Commissioner Roger Goodell its incredulous Captain Smith, and it is sinking fast now. Ship NFL has hit an iceberg that is more pernicious than the one the great ocean liner struck in 1912 – it consists of Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, and Aaron Hernandez, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. That should tell you how devastating this situation is for the good captain, who still believes he can bring the ship into port.

I hate to break the news to Goodell, but the ship is sinking super-fast now and unfortunately, just as on the Titanic, he doesn’t have enough lifeboats for all on board. So now we must invoke the age-old rule of the sea – women and children first. If Goodell doesn’t uphold that tradition, if he doesn’t seek to protect women and children from his crew consisting of many miscreants, then he is not just inept but he is as guilty as they are.

nfl 2The great sportswriter Mike Lupica writes about how Goodell wants to protect the shield, meaning the iconic NFL logo and the entire lumbering mess that it represents. We do not have players who have just gone wild; they are involved in distinctly dangerous and criminal activities, so much so that it seems the league has sought to obfuscate (no matter how much Goodell denies it) or downplay incidents. How else can we explain the original two-game suspension Ray Rice received for cold-cocking his petite then fiancée Janay Palmer (now his wife)?

We can go on and on about NFL players and their sometimes criminal and other times basically loathsome behavior. We can list the names of guys who are gifted athletes and stars of the game but are in jail, have served time, or should have been incarcerated. How many more of them are out there that we do not know about because team management or the league itself found ways to get them out of trouble? We don’t know the answers but we can only imagine that the tip of the iceberg, the stuff we do see, is abhorrent enough to shake our allegiance to team and sport; however, we all know that the tip of the iceberg didn’t sink the Titanic; it was the concealed bulk below the water that did it in.

So what is Goodell supposed to do now? He is faced with the sinking ship, not enough lifeboats, and the reality that something must be done. By first and foremost declaring women and children first, Goodell could go out (if he is indeed fired or resigns) as standing for decency and the rule of law. Goodell should establish his priority for women and children’s safety by making it the number one rule for every player, coach, owner, and employee of the NFL – if you hurt a woman or a child you are banned from the NFL for life. This rule must be established and irrevocable. Whether players behaving criminally like it or not, with this rule they will never step on a field to play the game again.

The obvious dilemma for Goodell is that he sees the writing on the wall. He knows that potentially he will lose many players over the years because of such a rule, that the most lucrative professional sport in the world will perhaps sink not just from the iceberg hit but from the inherently poor quality of its construction. We fans have to face the fact too – NFL games are brutal, violent, and the stuff of simulated war zones. It is hard to ask people to play such a game and not expect them to be damaged, to be altered in the way they view the world.

We can also talk about the danger to players in such an environment. The issue of concussions has devastated former players (including causing some to commit suicide), and it took Captain Goodell a long time to deal with that mess too (as Captain Smith of the Titanic apparently ignored iceberg warnings). The league eventually admitted that the game is dangerous to play and tried to take steps to prevent concussions. This still does not stop the barbaric nature of the sport; it is the stuff that Roman emperors once dreamt of in the games at the Coliseum. As long as the roaring crowd approves of the brutality, everything is okay, right?

I think the veneer is lifting now. How many women need to be battered? How many children need to be? How many guns have to go off in nightclubs? How many people have to die before the NFL comes to its senses?
nfl 1Some people may feel like it’s too late, and maybe it is. Maybe the NFL does sink like Titanic, and everyone turns to soccer, starts appropriately calling it football, and we allow that wreck to drop to the bottom of the sea. If that happens Goodell can look in the mirror and know whom to blame, but there are plenty of other accessories to the sinking of the sport.

For now we need to hear Goodell invoke “women and children first” immediately. This will put those who violate the rule out of football forever. It may not save the sinking ship, but at least the right people will get into the lifeboats. How Goodell will be remembered as the captain? As the man who saved women and children or allowed them to sink along with the ship? It’s his call but the clock is ticking and the ship keeps sinking. We can only hope that he will do the right thing before another woman gets hit or a child gets hurt. It’s your call, Captain Goodell.

Photo credits: getty images,,

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Education Express Should Be Full STEAM Ahead

First appeared on Blogcritics.

As a new school year begins, it is time to get back to work in classrooms all across America. In many schools, this will mean cracking open textbooks, listening to lectures, and learning ostensibly the same way you and I learned and our parents and grandparents did years ago.

While many of us still believe that we got a solid education, there are things happening now which have changed the learning environment considerably. Many classrooms have SMART Boards or SMART Tables; there are hand-held devices being used by students and teachers, and there is connectivity to the world that could never have been dreamt of before. With so much readily available content and tools at our fingertips, there must be gravitation away from chalk and blackboard, away from books and lecture, towards a new educational environment, and many schools and their teachers are already going there.

steam -claremont graduate universityThere are some very exciting ideas out there, some revolutionary in scope that can change the face of education, and some state and district leaders are starting to take notice of them. We have heard a good deal about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in schools, and that has gained traction in recent years as something to bolster student learning in those key areas. If the Common Core State Standards are meant to get kids ready for college and the workforce, STEM seems to be one of the best ways to go to embrace that.

There is an even better alternative currently getting attention across the country known as STEAM. The equation often used is STEM + Arts = STEAM. The concept is taking all the great ideas that have gone into STEM education and adding a strong presence of the arts to manifest an even higher threshold for accomplishment. STEAM is a framework for teaching across curriculum, allowing students to call on different individual strengths to accomplish tasks of varying complexity that would have never been possible in a regular classroom environment.

Georgette Yakman, a founding researcher for STEAM, says that it is “Learning that is representative of the whole world.” By fusing the arts (social, manual, physical, and fine arts) with STEM we are allowing students to get in touch with a wide array of options to accomplish a task. She explains how Science is the study of the natural world; Technology is all that industry has produced up to now; Engineering is the design and creation of things, and Math is the “basic language” that allows us to measure and calculate. By adding Art to the mix, we bring in an aesthetic sensibility that not only helps realize the vision of what we are learning but also enables an appreciation of the beauty and craft that has made everything come together.

steam pyramid - steameduIn every class you have diversity of learning styles, so it very possible if you have 24 students in a room that they are each hearing something differently, the fundamental reason why lecturing is not the best teaching practice. Also, if a student is sitting in a desk copying notes or diagrams from the board, he or she is merely transferring information, hardly a good way to encourage understanding and retention. That is why kids forget what they have been taught year after year and need to be taught it again – they never really learned it.

STEAM allows for an array of experiences that involve students in meaningful, hands-on ways. We keep hearing that CCSS push for classrooms to be student centered, moving the teacher away from being the “sage on the stage” and more of an observer, facilitator, and guide. In a STEAM world the students are taking charge of their assignments and using their diverse skills to get the job done. Let’s say a teacher has asked students to design and plan to build something, and one group decides to build a suspension bridge. In a STEM classroom, that could involve students in that group using their diverse skills to advance the assignment. One student could determine how the nature of the location of the structure will affect their efforts (science), another what tools, machines, and materials will be used (technology), another how the bridge will be designed (engineering), and another what the height, length, and width will be (math). In a STEAM class they will go one step further – the students will then work together to actually build a scale version of that bridge.
Tailleur-de-pierre_mainThe essence of STEAM has been around for a long time. French photographer Charles Nègre (1820–1880) seemed eager to embrace the as of yet unnamed framework when he wrote, “Where science ends, art begins.” He was fascinated with photography as an art, capturing other aspects of creativity and work combined in the pictures he took. He understood that art and all kinds of creativity took effort in and of itself to accomplish, but it was also representative of other work that needs to done to better the world.

The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) has been a major advocate of STEAM, and educators across the country are starting to hop aboard the STEAM express. The philosophy behind STEAM is very simple – the very things that make STEM programs attractive and their graduates ideal future employees are only enhanced by the injection of the arts into the mix. Innovation and creativity associated with the arts are “essential qualities” that will make those students highly valued employees in the future. They will not just think outside of the box, they will design and build a new one.

STEAM programs are slowly catching on and being implemented around the country. As STEAM programs continue to multiply, expect to see and hear more about them (only a few years ago the general public had never heard the words “Common Core”). Do a little research and see why STEAM is one of the best ways to go if we want to engage children, make the classroom experience truly hands-on and meaningful, and prepare students to think, learn, and retain skills necessary to succeed in the real world. With a solid foundation such as the STEAM program provides, who knows how far our students can go.

Perhaps one day when you are riding on a plane that can fly you from New York to Sydney in three hours or taking that long awaited vacation to Mars on a luxury spaceship, your vehicle will have been designed by scientists and engineers who had a STEAM education. Isn’t that what we want for our children – to reach for the stars and beyond?

  Photo credits: Claremont graduate university,,

Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day – Honoring All Kinds of Work

First appeared on Blogcritics.

Labor Day always falls on the first Monday of September, and much to the dismay of school children everywhere, this traditional “end of summer” holiday also means that school is about to begin. Yes, in some places children are already back in school, but here in New York Labor Day means one final day off before getting back to those classrooms the kids gleefully fled back in June.

labor 4 wikipedia.orgBeside horrifying school kids everywhere, Labor Day cultivates different reactions from adults as well. While it may be one last day to sit back, throw some shrimp on the barbie, and enjoy a day of leisure, many people work on Labor Day. Roughly 45% of American workers are laboring on Labor Day. Having just come back from the small local coffee shop, I can attest to those people being up early to make sure I got a hot cup of joe.

In my family, we always have to laugh when remembering my paternal grandfather’s opinion of work – he hated it. Growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and sharing a small tenement apartment with eight brothers and sisters, Pop had to quit 3rd grade to start working after his longshoreman father died from a heart attack on the dock. He had to help his mother support his younger siblings, and he never stopped working after that, so it’s not surprising after working for many years of his life and finally retiring, Pop had enough of laboring.

Work is seen as a necessary evil for some and a necessity of life for others. There are many people like my grandfather, forced into labor by circumstances beyond their control, and they must work to live. For them work can involve pressure and stress that can be overwhelming. Still, that does not diminish the work they do and the services they provide. We never know the story of that person we see performing his or her job, but we should appreciate it nonetheless as a contribution to society

Then there are those fortunate individuals who live to work. They happily go to work each day, believe their work matters, and see their jobs as one of the best things in their lives. They are the lucky ones to be sure, but no matter how enjoyable their work is it is still also a contribution to the greater good.

So whatever you are doing this Labor Day – enjoying one last cookout, getting to the beach for a swim, hiking in the wilderness, taking advantage of big department store sales, or even getting on the bus to go to work – it is important to know why we have this holiday. Sadly, many people have no idea why we celebrate holidays on our calendar, and Labor Day is no exception.

According to the the United States Department of Labor, the day “is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

labor 3 harvard.eduNow that we have that official explanation out of the way, it is necessary to honor all types of workers – union and non-union. Whether the person is handing you a cup of coffee, mopping the lobby of the hotel where you are staying, using a jackhammer in the street as you walk by, standing in front of a classroom teaching your children, or sweltering on the tarmac making sure that your plane takes off safely, all work has value and is important in and of itself.

It is too simplistic to categorize work as easy or difficult. A truck driver who has to unload hundred pound bags of flour all day may see the newspaper editor’s job as an easy one, and the guy washing windows on a skyscraper may look down and see all the people walking on the street below and relish his bird’s eye view. This is all about perspective, about the inherent worth of work in all its diverse possibilities and venues.

As I write this article indoors because of inclement weather (instead of taking my laptop down to the beach as planned), I am “working” on Labor Day. If you don’t think writing is work, think about this quotation from one of my favorite writers, the great Pete Hamill – "Writing is the hardest work in the world not involving heavy lifting." Whether you believe it or not, there is truth in his words that anyone who has had to write something and stared at the blinking cursor on a blank screen can identify with.

labor 1

I hope you can enjoy your Labor Day no matter how you are spending it, but at some point stop and watch someone who is working and be thankful for what they do, even if it is the person grilling your burgers at the family barbecue. Thank him or her for the effort, and make it a habit that your practice regularly. By thanking anyone performing a service for you (and giving a gratuity when appropriate), you will be honoring the work that they do and the spirit of Labor Day every day of the year.

  Photo credits:,,    

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Halloween in August Is More Annoying than Spooky

First appeared on Blogcritics.

early 1
A display at a Long Island Lowe's store
It’s beginning to look a lot like Halloween in August. Okay, there are enough things to worry or complain about in the world, but the pushing of the seasons into unseasonal territory continues to be bothersome, at least for me. Going into two different Long Island stores this weekend, I was confronted with Halloween displays. Even my kids said, “Halloween? But it’s August!” Yes, my children, and the retail haunting has already begun.

I started to get annoyed by this situation a few years ago when I first noticed Christmas decorations on the shelves right next to Halloween items in early October. Forget Thanksgiving, that inconsequential (from a retail perspective) celebration that just happens to fall rather inconveniently between Halloween and Christmas. I know people who work in retail, and they are eager to get the fastest selling items on display early despite the calendar; however, red and green decorations look out of place next to black and orange items. Who cares, right?

As I have said in the past, we are moving toward the notion of mega-holidays – one huge celebration encompassing major holidays. If you think the notion of a “Hallothanksmas” is out of the realm of possibility, think again. In the retail world (which starts to resemble a Twilight Zone of increasing marketing annoyance each year) it is already happening.

I used to hear my first Christmas song on the radio the day after Thanksgiving, but last year I walked into a big department store in New York City and heard old Bing singing “White Christmas” on Veteran’s Day (November 11th here in the U.S.). Even Der Bingle would note that tree tops weren’t glistening and kids weren’t listening for sleigh bells at that moment. Not to be outdone by one store starting Christmas music early, every store I went into after that had the carols blasting like it was Christmas Eve.

early 2
Halloween has come early to this Long Island CVS
Maybe I am acting like the Grinch who stole a pumpkin, but I don’t like that back to school signs and items appeared in stores around the 4th of July either. By pushing the seasons way ahead on the calendar, retailers are hoping to get an edge of some kind, but I believe they are alienating customers.

Now, when I took my kids to get the things on their back to school list, I had trouble locating them because pumpkins, witches, and ghosts ruled the shelves. It’s enough to drive a customer batty. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Will we ever get retailers to change the way they do business? It’s probably as likely as my beloved New York Mets getting to the World Series this year (or any year for that matter). I guess I’ll have to live with it, but I’ll never like it.

Anyway, we eventually did locate the things we needed (though the supply had been depleted), much to the chagrin of the kids. Those incessantly smiling faces of summer had decidedly turned to frowns as we carried pencils and books to the car in anticipation of teachers’ dirty looks. Back to school becomes a reality in two days. Now, for my kids, that’s something truly spooky!

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Readers - A Short Story by Victor Lana

First appeared on Blogcritics.

read - giesendesign,comFrom my bedroom window I could see the Fowler’s old Victorian house where my childhood friend Artie lived with his podiatrist father Frank, mother Wilma, and his little sister Veronica. They would sit outside during the summer months on their covered porch, each one of them reading a book for hours at a time.

Artie had some kind of affliction, but in those days the nuns didn’t care and expected him to function. In fourth grade he cracked open his cartridge pen and drank the ink; Sister Helen Richard walloped him with her thick ruler and told him to do his work. Things didn’t get any better for Artie over the years, especially in high school.

Many years ago when I came home from college after my freshman year, I knew something had happened. Ronnie, the beautiful redheaded girl with freckles with whom I fell in love when I was 15 was not sitting on the porch with her family.

“Hey, Mom, what happened to Ronnie?” I asked running downstairs and smelling the wonderful aroma in her kitchen.

Mom kept stirring her sacred sauce. “Ronnie ran away.”

Right before I left for college, Ronnie said, “I’m gonna run so far away from here, maybe to Texas or even Timbuktu.”

“Timbuktu? Really?” I asked, and she nodded her head.

I held her closely as we looked over the cemetery fence at rusting subway cars parked in the Brooklyn rail yard. The setting sun glistened in tears on her freckled cheeks as we kissed; I’d have liked to go away with her, but I’d made promises to myself I had to keep.


read - commons.wikimedia.orgAs I got out of the taxi when I came home after finishing medical school, Artie and his father were outside reading, and Artie waved to me. I put down my suitcase and jogged across the street. Artie’s teeth were worse than in his ink drinking days, and he looked medicated.

“Hi, Doctor Pete?” Artie said.

“Is it pediatric surgery, Peter?” Dr. Fowler asked.

“Yes, sir.”


“Thank you, sir.”

“We recently had a heartbreak when my Wilma passed.”

“Please accept my condolences.”

Artie held A Wrinkle in Time against his chest. “She had the dementia real bad.”

“It’s a blessing, really,” Fowler said, looking down at my feet.

“Any reoccurrence of that plantars wart?”

I wriggled my toes in my Birkenstocks. “Not since you treated me when I was 15.”

“Remember, it’s better to wear closed shoes, Peter.”

“Yes, sir, I remember.”

When I went into my house Dad sat in his chair reading the newspaper. “I was just talking to the Fowlers.”

“What’s left of them,” he grunted.

“It’s sad about Mrs. Fowler.”

He looked up at me. “She died falling down the basement stairs. Your mother heard Artie pushed her when he went off his meds.”

"That's true," Mom said walking into the room drying her hands on her apron. I kissed her and she touched my cheek with her damp hand. “Oh, Peter, I’m so glad you’re home.”

“I’m here a few days before I go to London.”

“I wish you could stay longer,” Mom said.

“Sorry, my job starts next week.”

Dad lifted the newspaper and said, “Let the good doctor go save the world, Carol.”


Eight years later after Mom’s funeral, Dad sat in his chair with the newspaper folded on his lap. I peered out the window on a glorious spring day and saw Artie sitting alone on the porch. “No reason to go to any Mets games this year,” Dad said.

“What?” I asked, processing his words and watching Artie staring down at a book.

“We always went to games together,” Dad sniffled. “I can’t go alone now.”

“We could go before I have to leave,” I said.

“No offense, son. Your mother and I went to Brooklyn Dodgers games when we were courting, then Mets games, and fifteen years ago to the seventh game of the World Series against Boston. It’s not the same without her.”

“I understand, Dad.” I took off my dark suit, dressed in shorts, T-shirt, and sandals, and went across the street to see Artie.

He looked up from Mr. Popper’s Penguins and arched an eyebrow. “The prodigal son returns home, I see.” All his teeth were gone. “Ronnie’s not here now; she’s sweet on another boy.”

I walked up the creaking steps. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry about your Dad.”

“He was so old,” Artie said looking back at the book. “He died with a smile on his face. I never saw him smile before.”

“Are you okay here all alone, Artie?”

“Sure.” He didn’t look up at me. “You really should wear closed shoes, Peter.”

I looked down at my feet. “Yes, I know but…”

“My father always said that. He knew feet, you know.”

“Yes, Artie,” I said, “he really did.”


read - trinity.eduWhen my father passed away in 2014, I came home from London to attend the funeral and settle the estate. As I got out of the taxi, I noticed a For Sale sign on Artie’s lawn. The four reading chairs seemed ready to be crushed by the collapsing awning and the generally dilapidated house.

Our elderly neighbor Mrs. Flynn came outside saying, “Sorry for your loss, Peter.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Flynn. Do you know what happened to Artie Fowler?”
“Was hit by a truck a few months ago. His sister came to take care of things.”

“Ronnie?” I asked, wondering how that red-haired girl looked now in her fifties. I was tempted to call the real estate listed on the sign and inquire how to be in touch with her, but decided against it.

I went into my house and breathed deeply, hoping for one evanescent whiff of Mom’s sauce. I couldn’t imagine selling the place. An old medical school friend kept asking me to join his staff in New York. I’d bring Penny and the kids here. I thought, It’s time my boys went to a Mets game.  

Photo credits:,,

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Ice Bucket Challenge Should Dry Up

First appeared on Blogcritics.

ice 2The Ice Bucket Challenge to raise funds to combat ALS (amytrophic lateral sclerosis) has gone more than viral – it is a worldwide phenomenon born out of good will. What is better than doing something to help others? Those who are allowing themselves to be doused with ice and water are generous and loving, and the notion of "calling out" (challenging friends, families, and colleagues) people to do the same thing is a clever idea.

Celebrities like Today's Matt Lauer, singers Shakira and Gwen Stefani, and even some members of the New York Mets  have become soaked in ice and water for this most worthy cause. Many other celebrities and people all over the world have joined in the chilly good fun. The ALS Association clearly adores this challenge idea because it is reaping bigger contributions than ever before, and there are those who believe this type of thing is here to stay and will change charitable giving forever.

ice 3While the idea appears to be fresh and seemingly new, think of how this all started – in sports. Golfer Chris Kennedy, from Sarasota, Florida, got the notion to use the idea to raise money for a relative who has ALS, and it all went viral from there. Truth is though sports fans have seen players dumping buckets of ice and water over their coaches’ and managers’ heads for many years. That tradition of celebrating a victory on the field has now morphed into one of the biggest fundraising ideas of all time.

But before we start calling for even more widespread Ice Bucket challenges, there is one salient thing everyone is overlooking – we are wasting a huge amount of water in the process. Water is the most crucial resource for people all over the world, and in these times of widespread drought and famine, wasting even a precious drop of water seems particularly absurd – especially as there are many people  dying of thirst.

ice 1So while the concept to do something unique and attention grabbing to raise awareness and money for good causes is an idea that I totally support, I think we need to do it without wasting a vital resource like water. Actor Charlie Sheen actually had a great idea for a challenge – he dumped a bucket of cash ($10,000) over his head, all of which he is donating to the charity. He also called out his old friends at Two and a Half Men to do the same. That Charlie really knows how to spread the love, doesn’t he?

So while the Ice Bucket Challenge is a great idea, we need more people doing what Charlie Sheen has done (that is without question one sentence I never thought I would ever write). We need to think of creative ways to do a challenge without wasting water – or any other precious resource for that matter. My thoughts range from recycling materials, household garbage, or those annoying Styrofoam packing peanuts; you take your pick.

The best things to come out of the Ice Bucket Challenge are charity and awareness. ALS (known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) is a worthy cause, but there are many other ones out there. Why not come up with your own environmentally friendly challenge for the charity of your choice? Whatever it is you will be making a difference while not depleting any resources necessary for human life, and that will indeed be something heroic you have done that is worthy of your selected cause.

  Photo credits:,,      

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Remembering Robin Williams – One Film That Helped Change My Life

First appeared on Blogcritics.

rob 1There is no question that people are mourning Robin Williams for many reasons, among them his vast body of work that delighted, moved, and entertained millions of people. We remember the laughter he incited, as well as the tears, and we recall him in the movie Patch Adams wearing a clown’s nose as a reminder of the severe dichotomy of a comic’s life – he who makes us laugh the hardest is usually the saddest one of all.

 Robin Williams rose to fame based on his rapid fire delivery, quick mind, and physical elasticity. When he first appeared as alien Mork on the sitcom Happy Days, it was a revelation to watch someone work the scene so well, so fluidly, making all the other actors (even the juggernaut character of Fonzie as played by Henry Winkler) seem inconsequential. Mork would soon be seen in his own series, and that launched Williams  into the stratosphere as a star of films, stand-up, and TV specials.

In my life I recall the joy of seeing many of Williams’s performances, including his stand-up act, which to this day impresses as something so over the top that it would be mentally and physically impossible for any other human being to accomplish. But the most important performance of all in my life, is perhaps his most constrained, strongest role as teacher John Keating in the powerful film Dead Poet’s Society. Because of seeing this movie when I did, I stopped myself from making what would have been the biggest mistake of my life.

I was in my first year of my doctoral program in English, and besides taking a full load of courses I also had to teach two freshmen composition courses. Fellows also had to be prepared to substitute for sick professors as needed. Feeling inundated by too many obligations as my second semester was winding down in the spring of 1989, I had hit a wall. The students, while earnest for the most part, seemed overwhelmed and not the least bit interested in writing or literature. Professors who already had their doctorates for the most part appeared to be grumpy, going to and from class with clouds of steam coming out of their ears. I thought, “What am I doing here?”

I remember sitting on the grass at the university and watching everyone rushing along paths to and from classes. I saw one girl chasing after a professor to ask a question, and he picked up his pace and told her that she needed to come during office hours, and everyone seemed to want to be anyplace else but there. I thought, "If this is the way education is, I want out now!"

A week or so later I made a decision that I would not return in the fall to start my second year of courses. I would think about changing careers, maybe working in Manhattan for a publishing house as an assistant editor or even doing work in my father’s business. I knew I was done and believed my career in education was over.

Then that weekend in early June I went to see Dead Poet’s Society. Williams as Keating is a revelation; he is the teacher every student wishes that he or she had, and he is the wake-up call for every teacher to realize how important inspiration and exhilaration are in the classroom. Keating is not only a master teacher, but he empathizes with his students, who learn that he once had been a student at Welton and also belonged to the secret Dead Poet’s Society.
rob 3There are so many memorable scenes in the film, but the most haunting is when Keating reads Robert Herricks’ famous poem and tells them that “gather ye rosebuds” is really the same as the Latin “Carpe Diem” – seize the day. He shows them pictures of all graduates long gone and now dead, and reminds them that they too will one day be gone. It is not only a so-called teachable moment, but it is a fine example of a teacher caring for his students beyond the classroom in the interest of their well-being, so much so that he manages to infuse literature with a life lesson as well as accomplishing the difficult task of getting them to actually like poetry.

After seeing this film I recalled why I wanted to be a teacher – it was also films that inspired me. Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love and Peter O’Toole in Goodbye, Mr. Chips had stoked the fire of my passion for teaching, and now as it was waning to a flicker of a flame, Williams came along and doused it with enough lighter fluid to engulf a city block. I walked out of the theater knowing I not only still wanted to be a teacher, but one as good as Mr. John Keating.

Many people recall the scene when Keating stands on the desk as he teaches and later invites the students to do the same to see the world from a different perspective. We recall the best teachers we had were the ones who didn’t have us glued to our books but to their every word. Some of us went through all our school years never having a teacher like Keating, and hopefully some of us had that precious experience here and there that made us realize that there was more to life, as Hamlet says to Horatio, than we have ever dreamt of in our philosophy.

rob 2In the end of the film after iconoclast Keating is fired, and old stuffy headmaster Nolan is teaching the class by sitting at a desk (strongly suggesting to all teachers that is a very bad idea), the students rally in his support, calling him “My Captain” as many of them stand on their desks in protest of his dismissal despite Nolan’s screams to get down. As we see Keating from their perspective, looking down at him, we know in their elevation that he has been successful in passing the torch – these boys will do more than remember him, they will seize the day and change their lives.

After all these years I remain in education and I have Robin Williams to thank for it. I remember him for all his many wonderful roles, but the one as John Keating is my favorite because he so fully embraced that part that there is not one second in the film that I don’t believe Williams is the best teacher in the world. Over the years whenever I have any doubts, I recall Williams whispering “Carpe Diem” to his students, and then I get right back on track and seize my own day.

Thanks for passing the torch, Robin Williams. In pace requiescat !

Photo credits:,,