On Thursday, November 20, 2014, a great teacher left this life. David Menasche had taught eleventh graders at Coral Reef High School in Miami for 16 years. In 2006, at the age of 34, he was diagnosed with a fatal form of brain cancer and told he had months to live. But he fought on for 8 more years.
Right after the diagnosis, he returned to the classroom, which he called his “sanctuary,” and told his students that he wanted to spend the time he had left with them. Early this year, he explained his choice to continue to teach by saying:
For me, teaching wasn't about making a living. It was my life.
Nothing made me happier or more content than standing in front of a classroom and sharing the works of writers such as Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jack Kerouac, Tupac Shakur and Gwendolyn Brooks and watching my students "catch" my passion for language and literature.
I loved watching these 15- and 16-year-olds grapple with their first major life decisions -- future careers, relationships, where to live, which colleges to attend, what to study-- at the same moment they're learning to drive and getting their first jobs and experimenting with identity and independence.
No matter how sick he felt, he was in the classroom. He was in these kids’ lives. But in 2012, he had a major stroke, or catastrophic seizure that left him partly crippled and mostly blind. He had to retire from the work he loved. But he didn’t have to abandon his students. In fact, he hatched a plan to visit former students around the country, to see what, if any, impact his work had effected in their lives. He announced his plan on Facebook and immediately had 50 invitations within 48 hours. He ended up traveling more than 8,000 miles to visit hundreds of his former students. And they shared with him their memories from class. His teaching had mattered. It had touched their lives. But most of all, they remembered the personal conversations they had shared with him while in school. He wrote,
As I had hoped, they recalled favorite lessons and books from class, but, to my great surprise, it was our personal time together that seemed to have meant the most to them. Those brief, intimate interludes between lessons when we shared heartaches and vulnerabilities and victories were the times my students remembered. And it was through them I realized that those very human moments, when we connected on a deep and personal level, were what made my life feel so rich, then and now. My students had taught me the greatest lesson of all. They taught me that what matters is not so much about what we learn in class, but what we feel in our hearts.
David wrote a book full of the lessons he learned and taught along the way. It’s called The Priority List: A Teacher’s Final Quest to Discover Life’s Greatest Lessons. It will be soon made into a movie, and Steve Carell will play the teacher who cared so much.
In this Thanksgiving Season, I urge you to think about what makes your life feel rich, and to cultivate more of those moments. Teacher David Menasche learned that it’s all about the very human moments we share and that can resonate for years. His realizations are confirmed and deeply reflected in another book just published by one of my good friends, Matt Hamm. Matt’s book is entitled Redefine Rich, and is available early in a special first release edition through his website, www.MattHam.com. Go check it out. Read. Reflect. And perhaps, this holiday season can be one in which you deepen your life with the things that matter the most, the priorities that will make you feel richer than ever.