maura @ 12:26 pm
I’ve been carrying this post around with me in my head all week, an incredibly busy beginning of the semester at work, too worn out in the evenings to bang coherent sentences together. This time last weekend I was in Delaware, having driven down first thing in the morning with a good friend to go to the funeral of our favorite teacher from high school. She was only 59; her kids were only in their 20s. I’m tearing up again even as I type this.
The small group of folks that I’m close friends with from high school first heard the news at the end of the spring a year and a half ago: cancer, of the pancreatic kind, prognosis uncertain. I had trouble processing it — my teacher had actually visited Brooklyn the prior year and my friend and I had met her for dinner w/our partners and kids — how could she possibly be sick? I was upset and angry and sad. I wrote a bloggy screed that I never posted about how stupid cancer is and about some of the other friends we have who’ve had bouts with it (and, thankfully, survived). I wrote a letter to my teacher expressing my concern, letting her know how much she meant to me, and offering support in any way I could. I got a letter back from her promising that she’d fight the good fight.
She was an incredibly energetic and optimistic person and she fought hard, but right after new year’s we all heard that she’d taken a turn for the worse. I sent her emails, one with a crazy photo of the back of her head as she was driving a small bus full of a group of us during a Spring Break trip to work at a homeless shelter in Richmond, VA. My friends and I emailed each other photos and reminiscing, too, my favorite (from an old yearbook) of her sitting cross-legged on her desk in class, hands up to emphasize a point. I can actually hear her voice when I look at that picture.
And so it was that I found myself in the car on the NJ Turnpike again (we’d gone down to visit my family the prior weekend) on the way to her funeral mass at the new theater building at my old school. It was lovely and sad. Gus asked me later if I’d cried (yes). There were hundreds of people there that morning, and had been hundreds the night before for another memorial service. Former students from when she began teaching 30 years ago up to the present were there. The school streamed the service live and I later heard that folks on Facebook said they watched from afar. She was that good.
Rereading what I wrote when she first got sick, some of it seems salvageable and still true:
If I can write at all I owe it to this high school teacher for sure. It’s in her English classes that I have the first clear memory of really writing — not just reporting on what I’d read but actually thinking through the words and putting those thoughts on paper, albeit imperfectly. I don’t have many artifacts of my work from high school, the perils of growing up before ready access to computers. But I did keep some of the photocopies of short stories we read in her classes, many of which were my first introduction to Borges, Barthelme, Garcia-Marquez and others and had a lasting impact on my reading and writing habits.
It’s only in reflecting now that I’ve realized what a huge influence she’s been on my teaching, too. She had only just started teaching a few years before I got to high school, but I’m sure she’s the same in the classroom now as she was then. Her classes were fun and interesting because she’s fun and interesting, and her energy and enthusiasm for literature and writing made her classes enjoyable even as they were challenging. Thinking about how my own teaching has evolved over the years, I can only conclude that whatever success I have in the classroom now owes a huge debt to those high school English classes.
All of the conversations I’ve had with friends and acquaintances from high school center around the same theme. At a time when we were all navigating the transition from childhood to adulthood and were not always the nicest people to be around, in her teaching and friendship she always respected and valued us. She was a great teacher because of what she always did for her students: treated them as people with ideas worth having, gave them space for their own voices and creativity, and inspired them to do their best work. I’m still trying to do my best work. Thank you, Rosie.