Archives for category: Personal

Vivian Connell passed away today in the presence of her loving family.

If you are a regular reader of the blog, you know that Vivian Connell was a teacher, a lawyer, a lawyer who returned to teaching, a woman who learned she had ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), a woman who faced her death with courage and dignity.

Several of her posts appeared here. See here and here and hereand here and hereand here and here.

I want to share a small part of this wonderful woman with everyone I know.

Deepest condolences to her husband and children, who loved her so.

Sorrow for the world to lose such a beautiful person.

I just noticed that yesterday the blog reached a milestone.

I have posted 15,005 times since April 26, 2012.

The blog is closing in on 28 million page views.

You have been very patient in sticking with me through 15,000+ posts!

What great readers I have!

You are fast to correct me when I am wrong, fast to correct errors of syntax, spelling or grammar, and fast to alert me to breaking news in your district, city, and state. Sometimes you read the news here before it is reported in the state or national media. More often, you read news here that is never reported in the national media because they don’t pay the same attention to education as we do.

I am trying to limit myself to only five posts daily, but you can see that I seldom meet that goal!

Thank you for reading, thank you for commenting, and thank you for sending me news stories from your communities.

A reader sent me this photograph of a wall facing Dr. Steve Perry’s school in Hartford, Connecticut.

 

After posting about it, I happened to meet the artist who created it at a community event. He emailed the photo to me. I enlarged it, framed it, and it sits on my desk.

 

 

I want to share with you something I love watching. It shows my age. It is a dance number performed by Bob Hope and James Cagney.

Yankee Doodle Dandy!

 

They are having such fun that it makes you smile. Made me smile.

 

But then I am so much older than most of you that you may not even know who Hope and Cagney are.

 

If you do, this will bring joy to your heart. We can all use that.

I am very patriotic. I was a child during World War II, when Americans fought for freedom and democracy and to liberate the world from tyranny.

I want America to be the America I thought it would be in my childhood.

I want it to be a place with “liberty and justice for all.”

I want it to be a country where no one is homeless.

I want it to be a country where no one goes hungry, where everyone who wants to work can find a job that pays a living wage.

I want it to be a country where no one who is ill cannot afford medical care.

I want it to be a country where people get enough education to realize their hopes and dreams, without going deep into debt.

I want it to be a country where schools cultivate creativity and the joy of learning.

I want it to be a country where educators are treated with the same respect as other professionals.

I want it be to a country where neighbors help one another and care for one another.

I want it to be the country of the American Dream, a country where every child can grow up loved and live in dignity.

That’s what the Fourth of July means to me.

Dear Friends,

Today is my birthday. I am 78 years old. I was born at 12:05 a.m. in St. Joseph’s Hospital in Houston, Texas, to Walter and Ann Silvers. I was their third child. Five more would follow. Eventually we were five boys and three girls. My dad was born in Savannah and dropped out of high school. My mother was born in Bessarabia, came to the U.S. at age 9, and graduated from the Houston public schools, one of the proudest achievements of her life. She prided herself on her perfect English. She was an American and a Texan.

I went to the Houston public schools from kindergarten to high school graduation. None of the schools I attended still exists, at least not in the same form. I went to Montrose Elementary School (now the Houston High School of the Performing Arts), then my family moved to another part of Houston and I enrolled in fifth grade in Sutton Elementary School (not sure if it still exists). I went to the neighborhood junior high school, Albert Sidney Johnston Jr. High, named for a Confederate hero. Then to San Jacinto High School (now Houston Community College). I may have had a few great teachers. Mostly I had pretty good teachers or good teachers, who worked very hard to do their best. I don’t remember any “bad” teachers. The Houston public schools were segregated during my time there (I graduated in 1956). I thought that was wrong, I read about the Brown decision, and I spoke to our high school principal, Mr. Brandenburg about it. I asked him why we didn’t obey the court. He sympathized but said that if the schools desegregated, a lot of good black principals and teachers would lose their jobs. There was also the matter of the school board, which changed every two years; every other election produced a board dominated by Minute Women and John Birchers who thought the UN was a Communist organization and such groups as the NAACP and Urban League were pinkos. They totally opposed any desegregation.

My Houston public education was good enough to get me admitted to a wonderful Ivy League college: Wellesley. I was friends with Nora Ephron, later a celebrated screenwriter, and Madeline Korbel (later Albright); we worked on the college newspaper together. Class of 1960, nine years before Hillary graduated.

Many decades have passed. Now the body is giving out; the knees don’t work well. One was totally replaced, the other probably should have been. But mentally, I feel like 35 or 40.

For my daily efforts, blogging and writing, at no pay, I am regularly called a “shill” for the unions, they say I sold my soul for “union gold.” Ha! It happened this week on Twitter. This is nonsense. I am 78 years old, and I do and say what I believe. My views are the product of a lifetime of experience and study. No one can buy me. I don’t want a job, a grant, or money. The only good thing about growing old is that your ambitions are put into check. There is nothing that I want of a material nature. I have noticed that the folks in the corporate reform movement seem to think that everyone has a price, everyone is motivated by greed. I am not. I am financially independent. I am free to say what I want. And I do.

I won’t ramble on, but I want to ask you a favor. Since 2010, I have devoted my waking hours to fighting privatization and defending public schools, their students, and their teachers.

If you want to do something for me other than say “happy birthday” (which is also nice), please join and/or make a gift of any size to the Network for Public Education or the NPE Action Fund, which engages in political action. I co-founded these groups with Anthony Cody, and we hope NPE will be the meeting place for all those who are sick of attacks on public schools and teachers, for all those who want to sing the praises of a great democratic public education system that is required by law to provide equal opportunity for all students. We want a transformation, not the status quo. We want great schools for every child, not just for the few. And we won’t tolerate the naysayers who pick on the people, institutions, and values we hold dear.

And if you have the time and resources to join me, come to Washington on Friday, July 8, for the Save Our Schools March. Walk arm in arm with your friends and allies.

Together we will prevail. I will use my energy to make that happen, to win over public opinion. I can’t do it without you. That’s my goal for my next birthday.

Diane

As you may recall if you are a regular reader of the blog, I have been posting the beautiful words of Vivian Connell. Vivian is dying of ALS, a degenerative and terminal disease. She started a blog soon after getting the diagnosis. Her blog is called FinALS. She gave her friends regular updates on her condition.

This is her final post.

I first met Vivian a few years ago at what was called the “Emerging Issues” conference in North Carolina. I talked about the terrible things that were being done to schools and teachers. She was on a panel of teachers who left teaching, moderated by John Merrow. She left teaching to become a lawyer to pursue her passion for social justice. She couldn’t leave teaching and she was soon back in the classroom. She joined the Network for Public Education, and we met again at our first annual conference in Austin. I later learned that she was a very dear friend of Bertis Downs, one of our board members.

In my view, the best thing I ever accomplished with this blog was to help Vivian raise the money to take her class to the Holocaust Museum, one of the items on her bucket list.

This is how her last post begins:


[Prelude: It is June 24th, and I have at last finished my final post for finALS. It is not the masterpiece I dreamed of writing, but I am not a writer, and it is from my heart. This Monday, my medical team, husband and I will explore palliative sedation to manage the terrible choking and gagging that now dominate my waking hours. Some people adapt; some never wake up.

Before I go, I must spotlight my husband, Paul Connell, who has, from the beginning, eschewed any limelight. Never has a spouse been more constant or devoted. And though we each have big personalities that clash, he has never wavered in his devotion or care.

I dedicate all I have accomplished in law school and after my diagnosis to Paul, without whose selflessness, I could have done little.

VRC]

Well, I am back at last.

My doctor has called in hospice and used the phrase “last few months.”

And I have been paralyzed by the composition of this post.

You should all thank my writer friend David Klein that you are not reading my original idea. It involved stories of seeing Ken Burns speak in 2008–a version replete with quotations and commentary, I assure you–of how I wove segments from my beloved TV favorite, Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing, into my teaching (again, with no shortage of inspirational anecdotes) and of how I discovered that the author and star of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, shares my love for the show.

But this is not to be an artful feature delineating again the ideals that inspired my teaching or the late-life leap to law school that validated my life’s work and filled the 27 months since I was diagnosed with ALS with wonder and opportunity. And I would love to regale you with the story of my Network for Public Education friends and colleagues visiting my home with both a signed first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird ( I know, right?) and my education policy hero, Diane Ravitch. I want to describe the tears of joy I cried when they left and the tears of joy my family enjoyed when we were gifted tickets to Hamilton! My husband wept because I couldn’t go. I bawled like a baby because they could.

And I want to tell you how my daughter ended up with an older script of Hamilton that Miranda had given to a journalist!

But this is not another post about serendipitous meetings and virtually miraculous joy that have so fully packed my life since I was diagnosed with this heinous, degenerative, and terminal disease.

I have covered my blessings pretty well.

These are to be my final words. Not a lesson from a dying teacher. Not an argument from a dying lawyer.

But one last time to attempt candor and artless honestly about my passions, my regrets, and wishing that this cup could be taken from me.

A LAST LITERARY LESSON

It feels important as well that I not leave anyone thinking too highly of me.

I was blessed to accomplish much I am proud of, mainly because I genuinely bought in to the best ideals of those before me and found the courage to follow my callings–to strive always to do more and do better.

Deepest thanks to my teachers and heroes.

I would be terribly remiss, however, if I failed to share at least a few of my representative fears and failings.

I’ve thought often of Hawthorne’s exhortation in The Scarlet Letter:

“Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!”

While I will not spend this post mimicking the poor guilty minister’s self-flagellation (you’re welcome), I will be sharing some of my less admirable choices. In retrospect, in fact, I am certain that my shame and regret–my failures–motivated me to keep striving to do better.

A loud conscience is a benefit, I think. At long as it brings about striving to do better rather than paralysis via self-loathing.

I diverge from many of my progressive parent friends because I take to heart that a reasonable and loving authority figure is healthy and character building.

I have no regrets about that aspect of my parenting: I think my kids knew that we rode them because we love them.

And I think this model is more effective when I ride myself equally.

And I encourage you not to procrastinate or ignore an urge to change or do better. Following these feelings brought all the most rewarding experiences of my life. And though I am far from done–though I have more public ( political) and private ( personal) battles to wage and improvements to make, I am out of time. And terribly sad about it.

This is only the beginning. Read it all.

Farewell to a beautiful soul. Farewell, dear Vivan. You have inspired us all to care more, do more, struggle more, and live our lives in accord with our consciences.

I am not a religious person, but you inspire me to plumb my faith. May God bless you. May God welcome you with open arms into heaven, where angels will shower you with love forever and ever. Please watch over us and guide us to follow your example.

Bertis Downs, a member of the board of the Network for Public Education, is a lawyer who lives in Athens, Georgia. His daughters attended public schools in Athens, where they thrived. Bertis spent his professional life representing the rock group REM. He now devotes most of his time to what he values, as a board member of NPE and People for the American Way. He is a wonderful person! On a trip to London, he visited the historic Church of St. Martin in the Fields. He thought about the famous quote from John Dewey about the best and wisest parent and did a mash-up with the prayer of St. Martin.

 
And we got this prayer from Bertis:

 
“It seems that John Dewey was Episcopalian, so I like to imagine him re-writing the St Martin’s Prayer for the World for school purposes:

 
“God, give us a vision of our public schools, where what the best and wisest parents want for their own children, the whole community and its leaders want for all of its children, leading to a world as your love would make it: a world where the weak are protected and none go hungry, uneducated or poor; a world where the benefits of civilized life are shared, and everyone can enjoy them; a world where different races, nations and cultures study and thrive and live in tolerance and mutual respect; a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love; and give us the courage to build it.
Amen”

As soon as the Network for Public Education conference ended, four of us got into a car and set off on a trip from Raleigh to Chapel Hill to see Vivian Connell.

 

Bertis Downs rented a car, and brought me, Colleen Wood, and Phyllis Bush to the Connell home. Bertis has known Vivian for 30 years.

 

I first met Vivian in 2014, when I spoke at a meeting of state leaders and took the opportunity to rake the legislature over the coals for its mean spirited and short-sighted attacks on the teaching profession and public schools. In the same meeting, Vivian was on a panel of teachers who told the 1,000+ assembled leaders why they left teaching; most left because the salary was too meager to live on. Vivian left to go to  law school. She wanted to be a social justice lawyer.

 

A few months later in 2014, Vivian came to the first meeting of the Network for Public Education in Austin, where Colleen and Phyllis met her. We were all smitten with her. She is intelligent, passionate, informed, and beautiful, inside and out.

 

Later we learned that she had been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). There is no cure as yet. We were shocked and devastated.

 

Vivian began writing a blog about what was happening to her and her determination to live life to the fullest. She raised money to take a group of 25 students to the Holocaust Museum in DC. She traveled with her children. She methodically set goals and met them. She ticked off the items on her bucket list.

 

Vivian’s blog is called FinALS: My Closing Arguments. I have never known anyone who faced death with such courage and grace. I posted her first post here. I called it “Vivian Connell: Face of a Hero.” The post, I learned today, helped raise money for the trip to the Holicaust Museum.

 

Today, we went to Vivian’s house. We met her husband and her two beautiful children. Vivian was in a wheelchair with an attendant. She is paralyzed and can’t speak. But she has an amazing device attached to her wheelchair that is a screen. She is able to use her eye gaze to type messages, which is then spoken. She is as sharp and alert as ever, but immobile. We brought a gift for her: an autographed first edition of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a book she loves. Phyllis found it on a rare book site and gave it to her as a gift from NPE. Vivian was very moved and held back tears.

 

I talked with her husband Paul (who adores her) and the conversation turned to what was happening in the state. I said something about the appointment of Margaret Spellings as president of UNC, and within two minutes, the machine pronounced a two-word epithet that is unprintable on this PG-rated blog. She has lost her voice, but not her sense of humor.

 

We left, with many hugs and kisses.

 

I want you to know this remarkable woman. Please read the last post she wrote, with the help of a friend, and be sure you watch the video, where she tells the story of what happened after she was diagnosed with ALS.

 

We left feeling blessed to know Vivian Connell. If you watch the video in her post, you will get to know her too. She is an inspiration, a testament to the human spirit.

 

 

 

 

If you don’t read this post, you will have made a great mistake. I have posted whatever Vivian Connell writes (for a couple of examples, see here, and here). Vivian is a beautiful, vivacious woman who taught high school English in North Carolina for twenty years, went to law school, became a lawyer, then learned that she has ALS. She began blogging about her life and how she was coping with ALS, which is a fatal degenerative disease. In her writings and in her life, she exemplifies dignity, courage, and grace. You will learn, if you read this post, that she is also a gifted writer who confronts life without complaint or fear as it slips away and as she loses her ability to walk, move, speak.

 

I met Vivian two years ago at a forum in North Carolina. She was on a panel of teachers who had left teaching or left the state to teach elsewhere; all explained why they left. The common thread was the very low salaries paid to teachers. Vivian is a passionate supporter of public education, and I was thrilled when she came to the Network for Public Education’s first conference in Austin.  I was surprised when I learned from a fellow member of the board of NPE, Bertis Downs, that she is a close friend of his; it turns out that Vivian and Bertis’s wife waited tables together long ago in Athens, Georgia. Bertis told me that Vivian hopes to visit the NPE annual conference in April, when we meet in Raleigh. This is fantastic news!

 

In this post, Vivian describes the remarkable events that have occurred since she received her diagnosis of ALS. She can no longer write or type, so a friend transcribed this post.

 

She traveled extensively in the first year, knowing that she had to use every minute. She took a group of school children to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. She was invited to tell a story–her story–at a famous story-telling convening (the video is in the post). Friends held a benefit to raise money for Public Justice, where she was honored. Our mutual friend Bertis Downs organized the benefit. She has met many new friends. She has experienced the goodness of friends and strangers.

 

She writes:

 

Who would have thought that a baby born to high school graduates, raised in tiny racist towns in Georgia and southern Mississippi, would end up in a progressive college community that revolutionized and expanded her thinking, generations beyond her upbringing?

 

Who would have thought she could spend three years living abroad, exposed to people from many countries, learning new perspectives on what it means to live on this planet, and certainly what it means to live outside her own country?

 

Who would have imagined the language ability she gained through this experience would lead her to a master’s degree and a 20-year career of teaching high school students?

 

And finally, who would have imagined that this first-generation college graduate would have been inspired by her students and teaching to leave her education career and become an attorney so that she would have the opportunity to have a voice in the public policy matters about which she was passionate?

 

I could not have imagined it, and I certainly could not have engineered it.

 

Again, I say my life has been much more blessed than cursed…..

 

How could I have imagined, when waiting tables in Athens, Georgia, with Katherine Downs, that I would go to law school, reconnect with Bertis, and have him connect me to Lauren, who staged the benefit gifted by Bertis that marks the culmination of fabulous events at the end of my life?

 

As I face my mortality.

 

Hell, every time I’m told about how rare my disease is, I want to laugh out loud because the events that have followed my diagnosis—the amazing connections and meetings—put the rarity of ALS to shame.

 

These unlikely events that have formed this magical web in my post-diagnosis life have in common a focus on justice, a belief in love, and a hunger for ideals and goodness.

 

These cannot cure my ALS, but they can certainly comfort and inspire.

 

And I would not trade them.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

And these are likewise the lessons of literature—the novels we teachers choose to teach:

 

The Scarlet Letter, which reminds us not to judge and points to the strength of women, the importance of the heart;

 

The Great Gatsby, which depicts the perils of acquisitiveness and of chasing worldly success; and

 

Of Mice and Men, perhaps the most important in my life now, which reminds us that we can never plan for an ideal future because…things happen—ALS happens—disappointment happens, and we must learn to cope.

 

And of course, Plato, who writes of Socrates (as I state at the end of my Monti story), who told the Athenian senate that anyone can escape death if they are willing to say or do anything but that the real challenge in life is not to escape death but to escape unrighteousness, for unrighteousness runs faster than death.

 

All the people who have lifted me up, supported me, and been a part of the amazing highlights of my life since my diagnosis…well, they are my running partners. We all seek not to escape death, but to escape unrighteousness. And our hearts are indescribably full.

 

I hope that my message—my insistence that fighting for our highest ideals of justice and for a life of service to others—will outlive me. I speak from firsthand knowledge when I proclaim these pursuits to be the greatest comfort—and perhaps the only comfort one has—when one faces death.

 

And I hope that this will be part of my personal narrative, the story that I tried to write through my life…

 

…that these truths will be the takeaway for anyone who reads my story.

 

Vivian has a beautiful soul. I don’t know if she realizes it, but she is loved and admired by many who never met her. She will live forever.

 

 

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