It's hard to know where to begin this post. I've written, deleted, and rewritten the opening line dozens of times, and the clock has not yet struck 6am. I didn't want this post to be about me - it seems tacky and selfish - and yet, it's impossible to ignore the parallels and influence present. I didn't want this post to be about him - there are already tens of thousands of those that all say the same thing - and yet, it's so hard not to launch into a recollection of his greatest achievements. I didn't want this post to be all about depression - his goal was, after all, to make us laugh - and yet, this feels like an opportunity that should not be wasted. And so here I sit, wishing to express so many seemingly unconnected things, and having no idea where to begin.
From the time I was old enough to say my own name, I have thought about Robin Williams, quite literally, every single day. That may seem like an overstatement - who the hell, aside from a deranged fan, thinks about a celebrity every day? Someone that has to say his name numerous times a day, that's who. When you grow up with a celebrity's name, especially an insanely famous, hilarious, and well-loved celebrity, it's impossible not to think about them often. For 30-some years, I've daily gone through the same routine - at the bank, at work, at social functions and interviews. I introduce myself, or hand back my form, or wait for my number to be punched into a computer. Pause. Smirk. Inevitable lame joke. Apology for lame joke. Questioning of my parents love for me. Rinse and repeat.
It dawns on me now that sharing a name with, and being a huge fan of, such an iconic figure has influenced my life more than I might have realized. Even that name you see at the top of this page - Robyn J. Williams - was influenced by him. My legal name is Robin Williams; I swapped the "i" for a "y" and added my middle initial in the hopes that people might not make the connection as quickly or as often (and to ensure I had any hope of securing a domain name). This may go a long way in explaining why, for the first time ever, I feel a genuine sadness at the passing of a celebrity. It's no exaggeration to say that there are few, if any, memories I have in which he played no role - even if that role was often just a bad joke at my expense.
But it of course goes deeper than that. Mr. Williams and I didn't just share a name, we share(d) an illness. He made no secret of his struggles with depression and addiction, and knowing that a man who brought so much light to the lives of others couldn't find the light in his own is a hard blow. It serves as a stark reminder that depression knows no boundaries. It does not care about your fame. It does not care how many people adore you, or how many followers you have on Facebook. It doesn't care that you have a good sense of humour, it doesn't care that you're talented. It doesn't care about your scholarship to Juilliard or your HBO special. And it most certainly does not care about your bank account balance. When people ask - and they have, and they will continue to - how a wealthy, successful, beloved man could possibly have anything to be sad about, it tells us that we still have much work to do in educating people about mental illness. It tells us that people still do not understand that depression doesn't have a face. That people can carry their depression in their pockets, laughing and joking and filling the room with positive energy all the while. That it's always the last person we expect. That we never see it coming. If we can manage to pull anything positive out of Robin's suicide, it will be a little more knowledge and a little more awareness. Perhaps, finally, we can begin to understand that this is a real illness that can affect, and even kill, those who seem most immune to its symptoms.
Rest In Peace, dear man.
You're only given one little spark of madness. You mustn't lose it. -Robin Williams
My grade 5 year, 1990/91, I was a chubby, geeky, awkward girl. I didn't have many friends. I wasn't athletic, or popular, or into dolls or cars or make-up or mud. The nerds had rejected me, as I wasn't big on maths, and I thought the A/V club was preferable only to death. I liked books and poems and paintings and music. I spent a lot of time alone. When grade 5 started, I was nervous. I'd already been labelled a "teacher's pet", liked much more by my liberal, hippyish art and language teachers than by my fellow students, and though the label didn't do me many favours, I at least had those teachers to stop my school experience from being completely miserable. But now, standing at the front of the classroom was this old, conservative looking, presumably Christian woman, who I was sure, by those very characteristics, would hate me. I had no idea just how wrong I was.
"Oh, my little poet-to-be, do you think you could pry yourself away long enough to do this equation?" She smiled and winked at me, obviously trying to meet me halfway between enforced curriculum, and my own passions. I'd do the equation, often incorrectly, and she'd calmly walk me through it, undoubtedly knowing it would never sink in. I'd nod in feigned understanding, and go back to my seat to finish whatever it was I'd been writing.
"Robyn, wait," Mrs. Pashuk would say, stopping me on my way out the door. "Hand it over."
I'd pull that day's story or poem out of my binder and give it to her. Her response to it would depend entirely on whether it was about that day's lesson or not. If it was, she would keep it and grade me on it. If it wasn't, I'd get a half-assed lecture on how, even if it was boring, I needed to pay attention in class, as I was a bright kid, and one day, the amount of knowledge I possessed would matter. I think she knew she was fighting a losing battle - that it was highly unlikely I was ever going to pay attention to things that bored me - but that she felt it important to at least try holding my feet to the ground.
Never, however, not even once, did she attempt discouraging my writing. Even when she knew I was ignoring the lesson, even when she knew I wasn't doing what I'd been assigned, even when I would spend the entire day alternating between staring out the window and jotting down lines, never did she tell me not to write. Instead, she'd tailor the lesson to me - she'd challenge me to write a poem or short story about what we were going to learn that day, ensuring that I'd actually pay attention, as I'd want to write a good piece. She'd try relating math to language, as hard as that must have been for her, so that I'd have at least a cursory understanding. She'd play me songs that discussed history (I'll never forget us first laughing at, and then really digging into, Bony M's "Rasputin"), she told me about scientists who were also poets to pique my interest, and she introduced me to painters who were relevant to the lessons we were being taught.
At Halloween, she would make homemade popcorn balls; at Christmas, realizing that our school was highly multicultural, rather than decorating the room in standard Christmas adornments, she'd ask us to research our own culture's winter celebrations, and bring something in to add to the room. Before summer break, she played us songs from Elvis' "Blue Hawaii" - that was, in fact, the only time I saw her as a vulnerable person. A few students mocked her for playing something as ancient and outdated as Elvis was to 90s children, and she actually broke down in tears. All she'd wanted was to share her love of music, and give us something fun and summery to listen to in our last few days before break, and her being laughed at for it apparently hit her hard. I remember being angrier than I'd ever been that day - this woman had showed the same love for the cruel, seemingly heartless bullies as she had for the sweetest and kindest of kids, and here they all were, teaming up to laugh at the silly old lady with her silly old Elvis records. It was that day - despite the fact that it was only a few days before we left her class forever - that the relationship between Mrs. Pashuk, myself, and a couple of other classmates, changed permanently. It was that day that previous alliances were severed, and geeks, bullies, preps, and jocks, joined together, in opposition to those that had formerly been our peers. Some of us were horrified by how some others had treated her that day, and what clique we belonged to had absolutely no bearing on the side we took. It was a day of growing up, and a day of learning to stand our ground. Some of us, who had previously remained silent to damn near everything, loudly proclaimed our distaste for their behaviour. Some of us, who had previously clung tight to our clique, boldly took the side of "the enemy", in solidarity with a woman who had made a sincere attempt to connect with each and every one of us. Some of us grew a little that day, and Mrs. Pashuk, from that point on, fostered in us a belief in ourselves. Not just because we had stuck up for her, but because we had defied our social expectations, and stood up for what we thought was right. And, in her typically fair and bold manner, also (later) defended those who had mocked her, reminding us that they had every right to not like what others liked.
I can't say that, without Mrs. Pashuk, I wouldn't have become a writer. I can't say with any certainty that I wouldn't have published a book or written for websites or started my own business. But I can say with absolute certainty that I would have had to work far harder to learn the necessary lessons, that I would have had to overcome much more doubt, and that I would have had far less confidence. I can say with absolute certainty that the way Mrs. Pashuk approached me forever changed my own approach to learning, to writing, and to communicating. I can say with absolute certainty that her influence made me a stronger, smarter, bolder person. That, after leaving her classroom, I felt more equipped to face the real world, even if I had no idea at that point what it actually was. That her belief that everyone could succeed, that everyone had a passion worthy of following, that her seemingly genuine love for everyone, completely altered the way I viewed my peers, and life itself. That she was the first person, outside of my own family, that sincerely cared whether or not I succeeded.
We love you, Mrs. Bevery Jean Pashuk. May you forever know the good you did in countless lives. May your legacy live on well beyond the 81 years you were given. May you Rest In Peace.
Wherein I say
whatever I want.