How high school changed Robin Williams’ life


Robin Williams in 2009. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA)

The late Robin Williams credited his “gestalt high school” in California with sparking his interest in entertainment. Born in Chicago, he grew up in Michigan, where he attended the private Detroit Country Day School. He told interviewers that he was bullied by classmates when he was young because he was overweight, and he played at home by himself a lot. After moving as a teenager to California’s Marin County with his family, he attended the public Redwood High School, where he joined the drama club and became involved in theater. Then he enrolled in Claremont Men’s College in Claremont, California (now Claremont McKenna College), where he studied political science. He left Claremont and attended the College of Marin, where he studied theater, and in 1973 moved to New York to study as one of 20 freshmen at the famed Julliard School. In 1996, he gave an interview to the Detroit Free Press while promoting a movie called Jack, in which he played a boy who has a disease that causes him to age four times faster than normal. In that interview he talked about how much he loved school and was not, perhaps surprisingly, the class clown.

“No, no, I was PRESIDENT OF THE CLASS, ” pronounces Williams, giving the honor the deep-ringing reverence it deserves. “I loved school, maybe too much really. I was summa cum laude in high school. I was driven that way. I can’t say it was easy to fit in. I just went out of my way to fit in. It was a private boys school, Detroit Country Day, and I played soccer. I was on the wrestling team. Mr. All-Around, you know? “But I think what made me want to play Jack was that innocent time before all that, riding bikes, friends in treehouses, all those things that loom on the boundaries of child and boy.” When you’re 10, you are “still a boy, and that time right before puberty, which hits at 12 — or 11 if you live somewhere the milk is different — is so incredible. A boy is still so vulnerable then. Boys that age don’t have a lot of chops in terms of hiding feelings. What they feel is right there on their faces.”

In this 1991 story in The Oklahoman, he said:

“I wasn’t also exuberant. I spent about three years in an all-boys school (near Detroit). It was almost like the one in “Dead Poets Society.’ Blazer. Latin motto. I was getting pushed around a lot. Not only was there like physical bullying, but there was intellectual bullying going on. It made me toughen up, but it also made me pull back a lot. I had a certain reticence about dealing with people. Through comedy, I found a way to bridge the gap….” “When I came out to California to go to high school, it was 1969. I went to this gestalt high school, where one of the teachers actually took LSD one day. So you walked in and you hear (whispers), ‘I’m Lincoln.’

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · August 11