David Menasche was a very popular, albeit unconventional, literature teacher at Coral Reef Senior High School in Miami who listened to punk rock, loved to skateboard and was distinguished from his teaching colleagues by his many tattoos. In 2006, at the age of 34, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer, but he resisted leaving the classroom, teaching through cancer treatments until 2012, when he became too weak to work. Despite being partially blind and paralyzed, he decided to travel around the United States to reconnect with former students and keep learning about life. Menasche has been to more than 30 cities in 11 states and reconnected with more than 75 stories on his journey, which he chronicles in his new book, “THE PRIORITY LIST: A Teacher’s Final Quest to Discover Life’s Greatest Lessons,” which is now in bookstores.
The book is funny (he actually changed the ring tone on his phone to the song “If I Only Had a Brain” from the Wizard of Oz”), direct and compelling. Here is an edited excerpt of “The Priority List”:
By David Menasche
Every day when I woke up during the summer break of 2012, I reached for the phone with my left hand, hoping it would be better and, when it wasn’t, wondering if I should make the call. I got my answer when, one morning my hand was too weak to hold on to the receiver and I was too blind to find it on the floor.
That same day, I called the principal at Coral Reef Senior High School to say I wouldn’t be coming back. I’m so sorry. We had been hoping you would get better. If anything changes, we’ll find a place for you. A two-minute phone call and, just like that, my life’s work, my reason for getting up every day was gone. “They say when you are missing someone that they are probably feeling the same, but I don’t think it’s possible for you to miss me as much as I’m missing you right now,” the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote. As I placed the phone down, I already missed the classes I would never teach, the students I would never have. For my whole adult life, teaching was what I loved, what I did, who I was.
After my wife Paula went back to work, I spent my days sitting in our living room, watching a TV I couldn’t see. Walking was painful and I was trapped in the house, alone and feeling anxious. My sudden physical dependence on others shattered my self-esteem. Most days, I counted the hours until Paula got home, sort of like a dog waiting to be walked. I wasn’t just bent anymore, I was broken. Cancer had taken my memories, my independence, my freedom, my marriage, and now my students. What was left? Trips to the doctor? Treatments that left me chronically nauseous and tired?
I went for my regular checkup and the doctor told me my kidneys were failing, not from the cancer, but from the chemotherapy. There was a new drug he wanted to try, he said, something experimental, which had its own side effects but didn’t cause renal failure. “You need to start this now,” he said.
I don’t know what it was—maybe the condescending way in which he was taking charge of my life—but I felt the old David infiltrate my body.
“No,” I said flatly.
The doctor impatiently waved me off—as if to say, Well, if you choose wrong, you’ve written your own death sentence. Perhaps. But for the first time in years, I felt unburdened. Free. I remembered the promise I had made to myself long ago. Cancer had taken my past and would take my future, but it wouldn’t take my present. It was time to make those words mean something.
As I sat there, in that cold office I began to think a lot about a recent conversation I had had with my brother Jacques. “What will you do if you don’t teach?” he had asked. When I talked to him about taking a trip around the country to see my kids, it was more like a pipe dream, the wishful thinking of a dying man. But the more I mulled it over, the more I began to think that it made sense. Why couldn’t I go? I had overcome challenges before, plenty of times, so what was stopping me now? Cancer wasn’t going to write the last chapter of my life.
I decided I would stop all treatment and take the trip. I had found my own cancer cure: be healthy, be happy, and have a sense of purpose. It didn’t matter how long it lasted. What mattered was how I spent my time. The plan I was formulating was to travel around this magnificent country, experiencing the places I’d always wanted to see and visiting with people who had so enriched my life over the fifteen years I’d taught, people I loved, who loved me—my students. We didn’t need a classroom to learn from each other. I would tell them stories and ask them to tell me theirs. Perhaps I could reclaim some of the memories I’d lost, and I would make new memories. And I wanted to know: had I made a difference in their lives?
Most people don’t think about death as if it pertains to them. They live life like it’s infinite. There’s always tomorrow—to reach out to a friend, to call your parents, to say “I love you.” I had lived that way even after my initial diagnosis—as if I had a million tomorrows. But when you really know you’re going to die, when you’re prepared for death, that’s when you learn how to live. It’s a bittersweet lesson. Just when you learn how to live, you die. But there’s so much beauty in it. All of a sudden, the sun in the sky is a reason to rejoice, flowers come alive, a gentle breeze on your face feels almost spiritual. Who you are is defined no longer by what you do but by what you give and how you love. To me, that felt like a good death.
With my new purpose, my mood changed almost overnight, and as the poison from the treatments drained from my body, I felt healthier than I had in years. I was pretty confident I could get a few people to take me in during my travels, but how would I get the message out to my kids? I’d stayed in contact with many of them over the years, but I’d taught more than three thousand students during my years at the Reef. What would be the best way to try to reach them all? How else? I posted a note on Facebook:
To my Coral Reef Senior High family: I want to thank
you all for our time together. You gave my life pride, purpose,
joy, satisfaction, and meaning. It truly has been my
honor to have been even a small part of your lives. Before
anybody gets weepy-eyed, let me just fill you in on my
plan. I’m taking to the road. I plan to hitch, take buses
and trains (yes, cane and all), and make my way across the
country to the Pacific Ocean. So let me know where you
are and if you’ve got a couch for a night.
Within forty-eight hours I had offers from students in fifty cities. Reading over their invitations that first night was one of the few times since my cancer diagnosis that I broke down. They were tears of gratitude. The kids I had nurtured and cried over and laughed with wanted to give something back to their teacher—as if they hadn’t already given me the gift of a beautiful life.