Wednesday, August 29, 2012

O Teacher, My Teacher: A Story About Mentors (One, in Particular)

"If there's nothing you're willing to die for, what the hell are you living for?" -David Menasche 

Today, instead of just talking about stories, I would like to tell one. This story is about a personal hero of mine, a teacher who has spent the past six years of his life fighting to stay alive.

Now and then, when we get lucky, a stranger walks up to us and ends life as we know it. It is not usually a sudden, meteor apocalypse sort of thing. It creeps, slow and sinuous, the way cats do (especially the talking, protected-by-magic kind). Just the moment of realization is abrupt; we blink, look up, look around, and only then do we understand that the landscape of life has changed around us while our attention was diverted. It is the same principle that makes a talented magician's sleight-of-hand trick so convincing.

I am lucky enough to have met several such strangers over the years. One was my 11th grade AP English and Composition professor, Mr. David Menasche. While, as I said, change is hardly ever instantaneous, I knew from the beginning that his class would be something special. I have one of my high school journals sitting in front of me as I write this (yes, I keep diaries; no, you can’t read them), which is filled to bursting with memories. Towards the top of my entry for August 24, 2007, in big, bold letters, I see the words, "HE IS THE COOLEST ENGLISH TEACHER EVER!" Yes, I was (?) a bit of a nerd.

There are so many books (like Freedom Writers), shows (like Glee) and movies (like Dead Poets Society) about awe-inspiring, stick-it-to-the-man type professors who challenge the status quo and teach their students important life lessons that it has almost become cliché Рand in fact, such characters in fiction are their own literary archetype known as the Mentor, sometimes also referred to as Wise Old Man/Woman. (TV Tropes, as always, also has a detailed section about this archetype.) From Mr. Miyagi and Obi-Wan Kenobi to as far back in history and fiction as Merlin and the original Mentor of Greek mythology, there have been teachers for as long as there have been would-be heroes and heroines in need of them.

Well, I'm no Harry Potter, and Mr. Menasche is certainly no Dumbledore – he hasn't got the long, white, old wizard beard, for one thing – and he never taught me how to raise phoenixes, brew Felix Felicis, or cast the perfect Patronus charm. Even so, his lessons were nothing if not magical; he made every day of junior year an adventure, and every day since, a little bit richer. It was in his class that I raised my hand willingly for the first time. I was always the shy, quiet kid, and I hardly ever spoke in class except practically under pain of death. He made me want to speak up, reminding me always that I had a voice worth hearing. Anticipation for the next lesson kept me coming to school even on the days when I could barely convince myself to crawl out of bed. The one time I did commit the mortal sin of being absent, it was only for one day, and only because I had been afflicted with the worst kind of flu, the kind that left me curled up in a fetal position in the middle of my bed wondering if I had the strength left to write down my last will and testament. When I dragged myself back the following day, he told me that since my fever broke around noon, I should have made it to his class.

By the end of the first week of school, I had already decided he was my favorite teacher of all time. It made the news I discovered during the second week that much harder. My late-night entry for August 30th, 2007, began with the following words: "I just found out the worst secret – the absolute worst news I've ever heard in my life... the best English teacher in the world... has a brain tumor."

Mr. Menasche was diagnosed with brain cancer the day before Thanksgiving of the previous year. In retrospect, I suppose the large scar on the side of his shaven head should have been a pretty good clue, but I believe my very naive theory at the time was that it was from a skateboarding or rock-climbing accident, or something else with an equally interesting story. He certainly did not seem sick. He has always been one of the liveliest people I know, and by the time I met him he had already perfected the art of hiding his condition, like making grand gestures or casually stepping out of the room for a moment to conceal minor seizures. He very rarely missed work. I can remember only a handful of days when he left us for testing or treatment. Last year, regardless of rigorous chemotherapy treatments, he managed to have a perfect attendance record, something even completely healthy teachers seldom achieve.

He always said that he would keep teaching as long as possible, until the day finally came when he simply could not do it any longer. That day arrived much sooner than any of us wanted; last year was his final year teaching at Coral Reef Senior High School. He was still undergoing chemotherapy this summer when he suffered from what turned out to be a seizure that robbed him of much of his eyesight and functionality on his left side. The man who I have always believed could see through any lie and anyone (myself included) now has a field of vision so restricted that he can no longer drive. He is the strongest person I know, and now he walks with a cane.

Yet somehow, he endures, and deep down I cannot help but believe – I have to believe – he is still the same man with the same attitude, the same self-proclaimed strut, that he has always been. For the lost little girl I was when I first wandered into Room 211 five years ago, he was a compass; he gave me direction when I needed it most. To this day, even when I feel the most lost, I no longer panic because his lessons still guide me. I recall when I asked for advice at the end of my senior year, he told me: "Don't look back... Go forward, always forward. Like a shark. You stop moving, you die."

Mr. Menasche and I, on my last day as a high school student in 2009.

After all that cancer has taken from him, it is his turn to move forward in search of a new direction.

As always, he has chosen the most interesting (and in this case, most literal) method in which to do it. On November 2, 2012, he will be setting out for a grand adventure he has fittingly dubbed his Vision Quest. He will be traveling across the United States from the east to the west coast to set his eyes on a sight they have yet to behold: the Pacific Ocean. However, the journey, not the destination, holds the most significance. Along the way, he will be visiting many of his former students who, within hours of receiving news of his expedition, generously offered up their spare rooms and couches for his use. As he said in a recent Facebook post: "Please know that although I would like to see the Pacific, that is not the point of this Vision Quest. The point is to find them and redefine me."

Since he can no longer lecture in a classroom, he searches now for other means of teaching. He will keep us all up-to-date on the Quest via blog entries on the official Vision Quest Facebook page. He hopes to turn his journey into a full-length documentary – not just a video scrapbook or memoir, but something substantial that will bring new meaning to his life and help others find the meaning in theirs. With the help of close friends, he is currently running a Vision Quest GoFundMe page to collect donations. As I am writing, so far there have been over $16,000 in donations, largely from former students (myself included) and their families. Many of the donations are tagged with loving messages of optimism, nostalgia, and most of all, gratitude

With any luck, he will have raised enough (about $50,000) by the departure date to cover pre-production costs for the film, so that this incredible journey can be shared with the world. If you are interested in helping out, please head over to the donation page link above right away – any and all support would be greatly appreciated. Even if you do not donate, it will only take a few seconds to share the story and the links with others.

If you would like to know more about David Menasche and his Vision Quest, take a look at the official pages mentioned above. You can also check out several interviews: Jennifer Reeves of NBC6 posted an article about him online, Tonya Sholz and Maria de Los Angeles of "Social Chats" conducted a radio interview with him on August 21 (you may have to scroll through a few more recent ones to find it), Summer Knowles interviewed him on CBS4, and a story by Lidia Dinkova appeared in the Miami Herald. If you or someone you know would like to conduct an interview or write an article or blog post about the Quest, please do not hesitate to ask!

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