We didn’t know how close he was to the end.
FIU graduate David Menasche ’97 would die of brain cancer just a few weeks later. We were at his home that evening to do a dry-run for the upcoming 2014 TEDxFIU live show, where he was slated to be our star speaker. The theme for the event: Fearless Journey.
Thing is, as the TEDxFIU organizer, I wasn’t sure what might come out of the mouth of this tattooed free-thinker.
He might talk of how, as a teen in the skate punk scene, he didn’t especially enjoy school. Or his many years as a high school English teacher at Coral Reef, where he was beloved by his students. He might quote a Walt Whitman poem or drop a Modest Mouse lyric or recall the writing of his book, “The Priority List,” that chronicles his brave quest to live fully as he was dying.
OR — he might talk about the time he was hitchhiking unsuccessfully in Alabama – with full-on brain cancer, mostly blind and with a cane. Frustrated as cars passed by, he pulled out a joint from his medical marijuana stash, lit it and held it out in the road. That did the trick. Within 30 seconds, a wild-eyed, high-as-a-kite trucker named Teddy scooped him up and the two took off on a bare-knuckled Fear and Loathing escapade to Pensacola.
He might tell THAT story. In front of the president of the university. And donors. And the dean of the College of Education.
When I suggested that might not be the best story for the university crowd, the author and teacher looked at me incredulous. “That is a great story!” he all but shouted at me.
I couldn’t argue.
The maddening and glorious thing about David was that he didn’t take direction or fall in line. The poet and rebel and the teacher and the skateboarding punk were all him and he couldn’t choose to be one or the other. David was going to do his thing, his way. Even dying. And so that evening in his Hollywood home, with his former student and TEDxFIU production manager Ayxa Vecino to his left and TEDxFIU emcee Alberto Padron to his right and me on the floor, he did just that. There was no coaching this speaker. No rehearsal.
We sat, as thousands before us, students of David. We listened and learned.
* * *
The only people for me are the mad ones,
the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved,
desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn
or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn
like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.
* * *
FIU English Education Professor Gail Gregg was sitting in her office one evening when a frazzled undergrad showed up at her doorstep. He introduced himself and explained that he’d just been thrown out of a class for challenging a professor’s teaching philosophy. He wanted help.
“I want to be an English teacher so bad,” he told her. “I have a vision that teaching is all about asking questions. Having students respond to the questions. Asking more questions and probing.”
Looking back on her first encounter with David Menasche, Gregg says, “He was teaching me right from the get-go what his vision and philosophy were and he hadn’t even graduated from college yet.”
Gregg allowed Menasche to enroll in her class and discovered the timeless truth that sometimes the student is the teacher. “I think he taught me more than I taught him as to what literature should be, life experiences combined with the literature.”
Teaching came to David unexpectedly. A self-described “smart-alecky kid” from Miami, he was never enthusiastic about school. But as the son of bookstore owners, Menasche had a love of the written word from childhood. At first, he thought he might be writer. He applied for a summer internship at Spin magazine and was assigned to review a stack of CDs with a 24-hour deadline. “I listened to the CDs and sat at my typewriter and froze. How did I dare criticize the work of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, one of my favorite bands?” he recalls in his book. By morning, aching and exhausted, he knew the writing life wasn’t for him.
A professor recommended he participate in the Teachers and Writers Program in the New York public schools. He was assigned to teach first graders in upstate New York. “On the very first day, I decided I wasn’t going to reach the kids by the book.”
He read to them from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is, any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Little hands shot up. “I looked out at my six-year-old students, sitting Indian style in front of me, and I saw wonder in their eyes,” he wrote.
Rather than dissect the poem, Menasche had a better idea. He sent the first-graders outside with post-it notes to write their own poems. “Jot down what you see outside on the notes,” he directed them. Back inside, they arranged the post-it notes into a poem. The kids bounced with delight at their creation.
“That was it,” David wrote. “There was no turning back. That was the moment I knew I wanted to be a teacher.”
* * *
Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul –
and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.
* * *
Menasche was one of the founding faculty members of Coral Reef Senior High School and during his 15 years he built a cult-like following among students. His former student Jessica Parker says she heard about the “cool, hip journalism teacher,” but discovered so much more once she took him for AP English. On the first day of class, he asked the students to share one special thing about themselves that no one else had. And in that way, each student was made to feel seen and heard.
“David was a very personal teacher,” said Parker, a painter and art teacher for at-risk teens. “He did not look at a class of 25 as one group. He instead saw 25 different individuals, with 25 different opinions, feelings and stories. He wanted to know every one of us.”
Menasche practiced a kind of fierce honesty in the classroom that created safe space for young people. It started on day one of his first class at Coral Reef. The very first teenager to walk into his classroom stumbled in drunk. It wasn’t even 8 a.m. The new teacher walked right up to the teen and saw a bit of himself.
“It wasn’t that long ago that I was a moody, defiant, reckless teenager, taking risks, breaking rules, rebelling against my parents and every other authority figure I could find,” Menasche wrote. “I was plenty rebellious when I was 15.”
The teen fessed up that he’d been drinking. Menasche told him, “Don’t ever come to my class like this again.” He didn’t write him up that day. Instead, Menasche decided to be there for the kid who was clearly begging for attention. “I never came to class drunk again,” the student says in Menasche’s book, “and I never missed Menasche’s class. I ditched class all the time, but never his.”
With all his students, Menasche spoke often about honesty and being true to themselves. And inevitably, every year, one or two gay kids would “come out.” Others would admit to cutting or burning themselves. The trust in those moments of truth was never violated.
“I knew how difficult it was for them and how brave they were for doing it, and I’d seen how it changed their lives when I and their peers accepted them for the totality of who they were,” Menasche wrote.
When it came to literature, Parker said, Menasche pushed students to go deeper and find meaning. All discourse was welcome. Sometimes, he’d do an end run around the obvious and take students to places they didn’t anticipate. “Yeah, this book is dry,” he would say, “but here is why it’s important.”
“I think what he really wanted to show his students was that they were important. And they should feel important,” Parker said. “That’s a big gift to a 17-year-old whose thoughts and feelings are usually thrown to the side as a phase or deemed unimportant.”
In 2012, Menasche won Miami-Dade County Teacher of the Year for his region. College of Education Dean Delia Garcia says it was clear to her then that Menasche was special. “Some teachers have that gift,” she said. “He was one of those teachers who impact the lives of their students from the start. If we all aim to have a certain percentage of what he was able to achieve in his lifetime, I think we are all doing a good job.”
In the 11th grade, William LaSalle lived in a rough neighborhood and found a friend in Menasche during hard times. He was being pressured to go to college but wanted to go into the Navy. Menasche helped him figure it out. “David told me, ‘Measure twice, cut once,’” LaSalle said. “Everything in life you have to look at it twice and make sure it’s exactly what you want to do. Once you cut it, that’s it. There’s no putting the pieces back. It’s been my motto ever since.”
The connections Menasche made with his students didn’t end after graduation. Many considered him a lifelong confidant. Those friendships, it turns out, would circle back to him later as he searched for meaning at the end of his life.
After high school, LaSalle went on to become a Navy Seal and special warfare operator. The two kept in touch during LaSalle’s tours in Afghanistan. The soldier confided in his teacher.
“I’m not going to lie, I was scared out of my mind,” LaSalle said. “All the training in the world doesn’t prepare you for what you see over there. There were a lot of life-and-death decisions. It doesn’t matter what religion you practice, no human is designed to kill another human and feel good about it. He helped me cope with a lot of things. He was just there for me. He just listened.”
* * *
Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind.
But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill.
Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was a horse between your legs
and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream
with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.
* * *
The cancer diagnosis could not have been any worse. Glioblastoma multiforme is the most aggressive form of brain cancer known to man and has a survival rate of less than three months in 50 percent of patients. Menasche beat the odds in near-miraculous terms. After his 2006 diagnosis, he continued to work at Coral Reef for six more years while undergoing countless rounds of chemo and radiation and surgery, and while enduring partial paralysis in his legs and arms.
During the summer of 2012, he was playing pool with a friend when white spots began to cloud his vision. He was overcome with dizziness. He got in his car to drive four miles to his house and slammed into a truck. Tests showed that his brain had swelled and he’d lost 80 percent of his vision.
He knew he was spiraling. He desperately wanted to return to the classroom but it seemed unlikely. He recounted the words of Tupac Shakur, words he’d shared with his students more than once. “You can spend minutes, hours days weeks or even months overanalyzing a situation, trying to put the pieces back together, justifying what could’ve, would’ve happened…or you can just leave the pieces on the floor and move the F on.”
He dialed Coral Reef Senior High School.
“A two-minute phone call and just like that, my life’s work, my reason for getting up every day at dark-thirty, was gone,” he wrote in his book.
Later, he went for a regular check-up and learned his kidneys were failing. His doctor said he needed to try new, experimental medication.
“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,” he wrote.
No. He was done with drugs. He was done with the treatments.
“The cancer was going to kill me,” he wrote. “But taking drugs to prolong a life of misery was a choice. My choice.”
That day began a new chapter, one in which Menasche, in his own words, would “really live.”
* * *
Do not go gentle into that good night…
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
* * *
A road trip around the country seemed the plan of a madman. Paralyzed, mostly blind and dying of brain cancer, Menasche called it his vision quest. He would travel around the country to visit his former students and see if he’d made a difference in their lives. He posted his plan on Facebook: “Let me know where you are and if you’ve got a couch for the night.”
The response came immediately. Students from 50 cities responded within two days. He hung the Dylan Thomas quote on his porch, and left on a Friday in November 2012.
In New Orleans, with his former student Melissa, he met the Reverend Goat Carson who “cleansed” him with herbs and a Native American chant. He realized on a 14-hour Amtrak ride that he had finally learned to accept the help of others, and, in doing so, accepted himself. In Manhattan, Menasche was having a hard time reading street signs in the busy crowd. A nice woman named Jessica helped him find the way to his meeting spot with a former student. When David arrived with his escort, his student was incredulous. Jessica was “Sex and the City” star Sarah Jessica Parker.
Menasche’s book describes in great detail the heart-warming and life-affirming moments, as well as the hijinks and humor, of his vision quest. The Priority List is being turned into a Warner Brothers film starring Steve Carell.
“I firmly believed before I set out that I would die on the road. But I didn’t. I lived on the road.. It didn’t kill me. It saved me.”
That, at least in part, is what David taught us. The only barriers to living your life fully are the ones you impose on yourself. He reminds us to show up for life and for the people in your life. Be real. Be unafraid of breaking a few rules.
When Menasche’s trip ended in January 2013, he’d traveled for 101 days visiting 36 cities and meeting 75 former students. He described the trip in the words of Huckleberry Finn, there “warn’t no home like a raft.”
* * *
It honestly was beautifully done
We’d tried to hide the daylight from the sun
But even if we had been sure enough it’s true we really didn’t know
Even if we knew which way to head but still we probably wouldn’t go
Fire it up Fire it up
* * *
The poetry of Menasche’s tattoos was a site to behold. A 45-rpm record adapter on his left forearm. Be Brave on his right wrist. The cover of the 2007 Modest Mouse album, a hot air balloon weighed down by an anchor on his back. Menasche was one cool, hip punk until the end.
On the evening of our last visit with Menache, Oct. 28, 2014, he sat in his favorite lazy boy chair and filled the time with his stories. Padron, Vecino and I had come with a plan but tossed it aside. We became quietly aware that our role was to shut up and listen. It was the last time he would share his story. His downturn happened almost immediately after that night, and he was too sick to give his TED talk.
Alberto asked him a question that could have had an epic answer. The stuff of Dickinson and Nietzsche. David, how have you defied the odds of this brain cancer and lived so long?
Menasche grinned. We said nothing as he unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it open. Tattooed across his chest were two words:
David Mesnache died Nov. 20, 2014, at age 41.
* * *
Editor’s Note: Quotes from David are taken from his 2014 Touchstone book, “The Priority List, A Teacher’s Final Quest to Discover Life’s Greatest Lessons.” Staff writer Chrystian Tejedor assisted in the reporting of this story….After I arrived home that evening, I wrote to David and thanked him for his time and openness. I sent him a Mary Oliver poem, and he responded quickly: “This is beautiful….As long as we all see.” This is the poem:
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations, though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen branches and stones.
but little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do-
determined to save
the only life you could save.