So many of us are grieving the loss of Robin Williams this week. As an actor, he made us care about his characters by becoming them; and in so doing, he made us care about him. As a comedian, he was an unstoppable energy that was equal parts intelligence and irreverence.
I know you’re wondering what this has to do with special education advocacy, but give me a few minutes. I’m getting there.
When I was fresh out of high school, Dead Poets Society came out. I thought it was brilliant, and that Robin Williams’ portrayal of Mr. Keating was stunning. Later, when the movie came out on tape (yes, tape. To watch on our VCR. Which was only slightly larger than our answering machine), we watched it incessantly at my house. The movie spoke to so much of what I was raised to believe in: questioning authority; the need for individuality; having courage to stand up for what’s right in the face of powerful forces which make doing so especially difficult.
In the iconic ending of the film, after being unfairly fired from his job as a teacher, Mr. Keating comes in to collect his things from his classroom. The students, who have been pressured by the school administration and their parents to acquiesce to the plan to scapegoat Mr. Keating, sit uncomfortably by while their beloved teacher quietly packs up. All the while, their class is being taught by one of the very administrators who orchestrated his removal.
As the pressure builds, it becomes too much for those in the class with integrity. One by one, the students decide to show their loyalty to Mr. Keating by standing up on their desks, saying “Captain, My Captain” (a loving tribute Mr. Keating created to Walt Whitman) while the administrator shouts at them to sit down. Robin Williams’ face as he watches this display is impossible to describe. It encapsulates the humanity that he was able to portray unlike any other actor. Somehow, when allowed few words, he was able to say it all with his sheer presence, energy, and reaction to others.
So what the Hell does any of this have to do with special education advocacy?
When we would watch our VCR tape of the movie in my house, my dad would say to me “Jenny, pay attention to this. Notice that not all of the boys stand up on their desks. That is very true to life. There will always be people who lack the courage to stand up to authority.” It stuck with me, and it stays with me to this day.
Almost every week I attend IEP meetings where good, honest, decent people who chose to become educators sit uncomfortably by as their administrators deny students services which those educators, in their heart of hearts, believe are necessary. I can see it on their faces. They want to shout out “YES, I AGREE,” but fear for their jobs. Every once in a while, one of them will be unable to stand the pressure, and will openly side with the family; but those examples are few and far between.
I wish they knew that if they had the courage to stand up on their desks, they would be protected. They have rights, including the right to not be fired or retaliated against for being honest about what a student requires under the IDEA. I wish they knew that teachers staying silent about what kids with disabilities need is probably the primary obstacle to those students getting that help. Administrators, faced with teachers who are willing to be honest “on the record,” often have no other choice than to do the right thing.
I wish those good teachers could see what those teenagers in Dead Poets Society saw: that standing up for what is right, even shouting it from the top of your desk, is what makes them worthy of the profession to which they have been called.