Nearly 60 years ago, a forced laborer in a Hungarian brick factory hatched a far-fetched plan to escape.
David Menasche was teaching high school in Coral Gables, Florida, when he was diagnosed with a deadly form of brain cancer. In 2012, he suffered a stroke that left him visually impaired and partially paralyzed. It forced him to give up teaching.
He decided to go on the road and find out if he had had any impact on his former students. The outcome is a new book, “The Priority List: A Teacher’s Final Quest to Discover Life’s Greatest Lesson.”
Menasche joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the journey and what he learned.
On beginning the cross-country journey
“Without children of my own, my students were really my children. And I cared for them as such. And when I lost my classroom, I really didn’t have anything to fill the void that was left.”
“Initially they were feeling pity and sympathy for me, seeing me in the condition that I was in. But then when they realized that I was on this trek cross-country, that same sympathy turned to pride. And that just motivated me to keep going to further and further cities to see more and more of my students.”
On what he learned about his impact on students
“For instance, Mona. She was at the time she was my student an Iranian immigrant who spoke very little English and was not comfortable in the least speaking in front of a class and writing in English. But through my class, not only did she gain the confidence to speak in front of others and express her opinions, but she went on to become a PhD candidate and is a published author herself. And she credits my class with bringing her out of her shell, getting her in touch with what she wanted out of life and helping her to achieve that.”
On how his students helped him deal with having cancer
Being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer gave me a sense of urgency, and I realized if there are things I wanted to say, I had to say them now. Places I wanted to see, things I wanted to do — all I had was the moment to go and do it. And I’ve come to realize the only moment each of us are truly guaranteed, is this one. … I needed something like that to make the struggles of treatment worthwhile. I can’t tell you how many times I was sitting in the chemo suite, hooked up to an IV full of toxic poisons, wondering ‘Why I am going through this?’ And then every time I asked myself that question, a face of one of my students would appear in front of me.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. And now for a very difficult question. If you went to the doctor and were told that you had a fatal kind of brain cancer and had a limited time left to live, what would you do? Well, David Menasche faced that very dilemma. He was diagnosed in 2006, when he was just 34 and was teaching at a high school in Coral Gables, Florida.
At first, he kept on teaching while going through chemotherapy but in 2012, he had a major stroke that left him partially blind and partially paralyzed. So he stopped teaching and stopped treatment, and decided to go on a cross-country trip to find his former students and ask them what kind of impact he had had on their lives.
He's written a book, called "The Priority List: A Teacher's Final Quest to Discover Life's Greatest Lessons," and he's with us now from WLRN in Miami. David, thanks so much for being here.
DAVID MENASCHE: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
HOBSON: Well, take us back to the day that you decided that you wanted to go on this journey and find some of your former students.
MENASCHE: Certainly. The day before Thanksgiving in 2006, I was diagnosed with brain cancer. But I didn't make the decision to go visit former students until 2012, when I suffered a stroke that took away the use of the left side of my body and most of my vision. After I lost my classroom and could no longer drive, I really just didn't have anything to do, so I was sitting around the house feeling like I had no purpose and no reason to continue suffering through the treatments of cancer.
To paraphrase Nietzsche, he said a person who has a why to live can always figure out how. And after I lost my classroom, I lost the why. So I set out on the road alone in the winter, to go visit my students. I ended up spending 101 days on the road; made my way to 76 of my former students in 12 different states.
HOBSON: But when you say you lost the why, that is the only thing that mattered to you, was teaching your students?
MENASCHE: Nothing was more important. I mean, other things mattered, of course, as they do to all humans. I'm not just singularly focused on my career. But without children of my own, my students really were my kids, and I cared for them as such. And when I lost my classroom, I really didn't have anything to fill the void that was left.
HOBSON: So tell us about the first one. When you decided to go out there and find former students, where did you go first?
MENASCHE: My first stop was in Tallahassee, Fla., where I have a lot of former students that are attending Florida State University in the same city. A former student of mine, Jennifer Brewer, who is now my caregiver, threw a kickoff party for me and rented out a club space. And it was just phenomenal to see something like 40 of my kids in one room.
And initially, they were feeling pity and sympathy for me, seeing me in the condition that I was in.But then when they realized that I was on this trek cross-country, that same sympathy turned to pride. And that just motivated me to keep going to further and further cities, to see more and more of my students.
HOBSON: What was the most memorable of your meetings with students?
MENASCHE: Well, that is a difficult question. But I would probably chalk it up to Mona, who lives in San Francisco. She was a student of mine in my first year teaching. I hadn't seen her in, I guess, 15 and a half years. And I started the trip in Miami, and made my way all the way over to see her in San Francisco. When I got off the train, I was in a crowded train station and with my vision as poor as it is, I couldn't recognize her or anybody else in the station.
So I'm just there tapping my cane around, hoping someone would come rescue me; and then from behind me, I hear this voice squeal, Menasche, what are you doing here? How did you get here? And I turn around and I see Mona, now 15 years later; a full-grown woman with an 8-month old baby in tow, and it was just miraculous to see her after all this time.
She takes me from the train station into her car, and we took a ride to Golden Gate Park, where I got to see the Pacific Ocean for the first time as well as the Golden Gate Bridge. And seeing her; meeting her husband, her child; and the Pacific Ocean and Golden Gate Bridge all in one day probably stands out as one of the top highlights of the trip.
HOBSON: And what about what the students were telling you about what your teaching had meant to them?
MENASCHE: Well, it does seem like I had an influence, had an effect, and that it was a positive one. Time and time again, I heard my students tell me that it was the assignments in my class that helped them get in touch with who they were as people and what was important to them; that my assignments helped them figure out what their dreams were and that I, as a teacher, helped them achieve those dreams. And there is no higher praise for a teacher than that.
HOBSON: Like what? Give me an example of what somebody said to you that sticks in your mind.
MENASCHE: Certainly. For instance, Mona - who I had mentioned earlier - she was, at the time she was my student, an Iranian immigrant who spoke very little English and was not comfortable in the least speaking in front of a class or writing in English. But through my class, not only did she gain the confidence to speak in front of others and express her opinions, but she went on to become a Ph.D. candidate and is a published author herself. And she credits my class with bringing her out of the shell, getting her in touch with what it is she wanted out of life, and helping her to achieve that.
HOBSON: What's your health status, at this point?
MENASCHE: Well, I get an MRI every two months, so I live two months at a time. And I'm proud to say that my most recent MRI showed that my tumor is stable, which is as good as it gets. Tumors do not get smaller. They either grow or they stay stable, and mine is stable. So I was essentially granted another two months - till the next MRI - to be carefree and enjoy myself.
HOBSON: David, was it hard to make a decision like you did, a decision that you would only make when you thought you were at the end of your life, that you had to accomplish this one thing and go out and speak to your former students?
MENASCHE: No, it was not a difficult thing. Being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer gave me a sense of urgency. And I realized that if there was things I wanted to say, I had to say them now; places I wanted to see or things I wanted to do, all I had was the moment to go and do it. And I've come to realize that the only moment any of us are truly guaranteed is this one.
And with that sense of urgency, I packed up my things, hit the road, and went to see the people I loved and who loved me. I needed something like that to make the struggles of treatment worthwhile. I can't tell you how many times I was sitting in the chemo suite, hooked up to an IV full of toxic poisons, wondering, why I am going through this?
And then every time I ask myself that question, a face of one of my students would appear in front of me.
HOBSON: What would you tell other teachers who are listening to this - who may be in good health, but what would you want them to know about making the most of the time that they have with their students?
MENASCHE: I want them to know that as teachers, they are on stage all of the time. It's not just when they're in front of the class delivering a lesson or a lecture, but that when they're with their students one-on-one, those are the moments that the kids really remember after years pass. When the teachers have the opportunity to get involved with the students on a personal level, to make sure that they are striving and achieving as much as they possibly can, and if possible to identify what their hopes and dreams are and help them with that - to the teachers I say, don't teach your class as a single unit. Realize that your room is filled with individuals, and that your lessons need to be personalized to reach each of those individuals.
HOBSON: David Menasche is author of the book "The Priority List: A Teacher's Final Quest to Discover Life's Greatest Lessons." David, best of luck with your continued treatment, and I'm so glad you were able to meet with so many of your students.
MENASCHE: Thank you, Jeremy. I truly appreciate it.
HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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