noun \kap-tən also kap-əm\
: a person who is in charge of a ship or an airplane
: an officer of high rank in some branches of the military
: an officer of high rank in a police or fire department
1 a (1) : a military leader : the commander of a unit or a body of troops (2) : a subordinate officer commanding under a sovereign or general (3) : a commissioned officer in the army, air force, or marine corps ranking above a first lieutenant and below a major
b (1) : a naval officer who is master or commander of a ship (2) : a commissioned officer in the navy ranking above a commander and below a commodore and in the coast guard ranking above a commander and below a rear admiral
c : a senior pilot who commands the crew of an airplane
d : an officer in a police department or fire department in charge of a unit (as a precinct or company) and usually ranking above a lieutenant and below a chief
2 : one who leads or supervises
3 : a person of importance or influence in a field <captains of industry>
“I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”
—Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself in Leaves of Grass
Robin Williams died today.
I don’t know quite how to explain how I feel about this. Sadness doesn’t quite cover it.
I miss him and I didn’t know him. I wish he were here.
Williams was a master of comedy. However, it was his serious roles that moved me most. But if you look closely at even his comedic roles, there is always something serious there, too.
I hadn’t realized how young I was when Dead Poets’ Society came out. I was ten. And I’m pretty sure I saw it not too long after that. Maybe I was a few years older. But what I know was that I wanted him to be my teacher. The way he was on fire for words. The way he encouraged his young students. The way he told them that the things that mattered to me mattered. He made them sound their barbaric yawps and I was a scared little kid who desperately wanted to yawp, too. I wanted someone to give me permission to yawp. And when the lead character, the student he encourages to follow his dreams and be himself, commits suicide because of the competing pressures of what he wants and what his parents want, I felt that sadness deeply. I felt the tragedy as if it were happening to someone I loved, in a community I cared about. When Williams’ character is told to leave at the end and his students one by one stand on their desks, defying their old teacher and old ways of thinking and being, I felt as if the sea changes that had happened inside them had also happened inside me.
When I saw Williams as a young doctor bring to life patients who had previously been catatonic, enslaved in their frozen bodies, his joy was mine. And when the meds stopped working suddenly, when he couldn’t figure out what went wrong, when suddenly he saw the patients he had grown close to become closed off and isolated again, I wept. And not tiny tears, not a single drop rolling down a check, but full body quaking kind of weeping.
We could say, yes, Robin Williams was a good actor. And we would be right. But it was more than that. He was tapped into something greater, in who he was and what he did. I always felt like there was some aspect of every character that was him. And not in the “he always plays himself” way. He played everyone and still was himself. He drew the essence out of each character. He showed us what human looked like and in doing so, he showed us ourselves.
He didn’t show us the selves that we carefully curate and dress for the world. He showed us our whole selves: broken and flawed and terrified, risking and failing, fucking things up for the millionth time. He showed us our whole selves: fragile and vulnerable and joyful and filled with love. He made us laugh because he knew what it meant to weep. He made us weep because we understood that to be human is to be everything at once, that there is tear in every roll of laughter, that what makes us beautiful also makes us breakable.
So in this, he was my teacher. And he was one of the best ones I’ve ever had. I am sad he had to leave us so soon. I’m grateful he was here.
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
The arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
–Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
3 responses to “cap·tain”
He was my teacher too and helped me be a better teacher. The two films I consistently showed in class were Good Morning Vietnam and Dead Poets Society. I have no idea what I will do next year, whether I can show these without sobbing, and whether I can present them in a way that gives my students hope, and does not feed their despair.
Definitely, Christina. He helped me be a better teacher as well. I hope and trust that the way he lived his life and the roles he chose and played so well will continue to inspire. I hear you though. When the teachers succumb to their suffering, it is hard. Thanks for taking the time to comment. That means alot to me.
Thanks, Lisa, for this beautiful tribute to Robin Williams. You expressed so eloquently how he captured and unveiled our deepest vulnerable humanity and road the waves of elation but also the crush of being slammed into the sand. I imagine the diagnosis of parkingson’s along with his struggle with addiction and the depths of the downside of bipolar were just too much for him, but how I wish he could have felt enough support and love to hold him up through the dark times. Is it possible he was so loved but did not feel it?
If so, how tragic. I think of the poetic lines: “every man’s death diminishes me”, what a loss!?