A Former Teacher with Brain Cancer Talks Priorities

After A Cancer Diagnosis, Lessons In Priorities

Teaching high school English came naturally to David Menasche but a terminal brain cancer diagnosis forced him to leave the classroom. So he visited some of his former students to see what impact he’s had on them. He writes about the experience in his forthcoming book, The Priority List

TRANSCRIPT

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I’m Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Christmas is here and later in the program, we have a special gift for you. Some of our favorite conversations of the year from translating hip-hop lyrics into sign language, to a legendary musician turning personal grief into powerful song. First, though, a teacher who’s inspiring his students less with his lesson plans and more with his life.

David Menasche taught English in a Miami high school for years. But as he approached the final stages of terminal brain cancer, Menasche decided it was time to hit the road. He spent more than a hundred days traveling hundreds of miles by train and car visiting some of his former students. And he wrote about the journey in a upcoming book called, “The Priority List: A Teacher’s Final Quest to Discover Life’s Greatest Lessons.” And he joins me now. David, welcome to the program.

DAVID MENASCHE: Thank you, Celeste.

HEADLEE: It wasn’t after you got diagnosed that you decided to go on this trip. What’s shocked me a bit was that it was after you’d actually lost a large…

MENASCHE: Exactly.

HEADLEE: …Portion of your vision when it would be the hardest – the most difficult, it seems to be, to go traveling. Why then?

MENASCHE: Well, it wasn’t the diagnosis of brain cancer that got me motivated to go on the trip. It was actually this past July 10, 2012, I suffered a stroke that took away the left side of my body and half of my vision. And at that point, I realized I couldn’t teach anymore, as I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t even get to work, much less watch a over a class of 30 students. So bored, frustrated and feeling purposeless, I decided to take a trip to go visit my former students. So I put a post on Facebook, and within 48 hours, I had offers in 50 different cities, which led to a trip of over 8,000 miles, 75 different students and different couches, over 101 days, and as you said, a book.

HEADLEE: So did you basically decide to visit each student that invited you on Facebook? Or did you…

MENASCHE: Yes.

HEADLEE: …Pick and choose?

MENASCHE: No, my intention was to go see every single one of them, but unfortunately, because of circumstances – you know, kids get sick, people get pulled out of town, things like that happen – I didn’t get to see every single one of the students that I had got an offer from. But I did get the lion’s share of it. Making it all the way to the Pacific Ocean for the first time for me.

HEADLEE: So the question you were asking these students was what kind of impact did I have on your life, right?

MENASCHE: I wanted to know if I made a difference.

HEADLEE: Do you think you were able to get an honest answer from them? I mean, I would imagine that with you sitting right in front of them…

MENASCHE: Absolutely. I had quite a few students tell me, oh, I hated your class. You put me on the spot all of the time. I never felt prepared. But, you know, at the same time, I would ask them, did that in any way help you? And very frequently the answer would be yes.

You know, that being forced to think on their feet, being forced to answer questions ultimately was a benefit. But no, not all of them were, you know, just fawning over me, which was good because that’s what I wanted was an honest answer. But for the most part, I got a range within each one of them where they would say, this part of the class was amazing. This other part of the class, I could’ve done without.

Read more: http://www.npr.org/2013/12/25/256874611/sorting-priorities-after-a-cancer-diagnosis

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