Skip to main content

Why I'm not afraid of dying

By David Menasche
January 10, 2014 -- Updated 2050 GMT (0450 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Menasche: I taught 11th grade for 16 years; teaching was my life and made me happy
  • Menasche: After being diagnosed with brain cancer, my classroom was my sanctuary
  • He traveled around the country to reconnect with former students, who grew up kind
  • Menasche: To borrow from the great Lou Gehrig, I will die feeling like the luckiest man

Editor's note: David Menasche is the author of the forthcoming memoir, "The Priority List: A Teacher's Final Quest to Discover Life's Greatest Lessons" (Touchstone, January 14).

(CNN) -- For 16 glorious years, I taught 11th-graders at a magnet high school in Miami. 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.

There wasn't a day when I didn't feel privileged to be part of their metamorphoses and grateful for the chance to affect their lives.

My classroom was my sanctuary, so on the day before Thanksgiving in 2006 when I was diagnosed with an incurable form of brain cancer at 34 and told I had less than a year to live, I did what I always did. I went to school. I needed my students to know that I trusted them enough to share life's most sacrosanct passage. Death.

They, in turn, helped me to live in the moment and spend whatever time I had left living well. For six years, the only time I wasn't in class was when I was undergoing brain surgery. I never avoided the topic of my cancer, glioblastoma multiforme, with my students, but it was not something I dwelled on, nor did they.

I covered my bald, lacerated head with a woolen hat and scheduled chemotherapy around my classes, and I got so good at being sick that I could run to the bathroom, heave into the toilet, flush, brush my teeth and fly back to class in under three minutes. They pretended not to notice. During that time, I even won "Teacher of the Year" for my region. I was grateful for every breath and felt as if I could live that way forever.

Then, two summers ago, the tumor in my head decided to act up. I was playing pool with a friend when I was struck with a catastrophic seizure that left me crippled and mostly blind. After two months of physical therapy and a grim prognosis for improvement, I was forced to face that I could no longer be the teacher I once was and I tendered my resignation.

The cancer had finally succeeded in taking me out of the classroom, but I wasn't ready to let it take me out of the game. I wasn't afraid to die. I was afraid of living without a purpose.

To paraphrase Nietzsche, a person who has a why to live can always find a how. My "why" had always been my students. I just needed to find a new "how." Since I no longer had a classroom for them to come to me, I decided that I would go to them.

My students had taught me the greatest lesson of all...what matters is not so much about what we learn in class, but what we feel in our hearts.
David Menasche

In September of 2012, I posted my plan on Facebook. I said I wanted to spend whatever time I had left visiting with former students. My purpose was to have a chance to see firsthand how my kids were faring and to witness how, if at all, I had helped shape their young lives. It was an opportunity that few people ever get, but many, and particularly teachers, would covet.

Within hours of posting, I had invitations from students in more than 50 cities across the country. In early November, I set off on my journey, traveling across America by bus, by train, just me and my red-tipped cane.

Over the next three months, I traveled more than 8,000 miles from Miami to New York, to America's heartland and San Francisco's Golden Gate, visiting hundreds of my former students along the way. I had hoped I would discover that I'd instilled in at least some of them a lasting love of books and literature, and a deep curiosity about the world. But what my trip taught me was something even more gratifying.

What I learned from my travels was that my students had grown up to be kind and caring people.

People who picked me up when I fell over curbs, read to me from books I could no longer see, and cut my food when I could not grasp a knife. They shared with me their deepest secrets, introduced me to their families and friends, sang to me my favorite songs and recited my favorite poetry.

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.

I am a pragmatic man. I know there is no reason I should still be alive. The cancer never lets me forget that it and not I will ultimately win this battle of wills. I know the disease will have its way with me, and sooner, rather than later.

My limbs are withering and my memory is fading. Yet as my world dims from the tumor growing in my head, I see ever more clearly the gifts the promise of an early death has brought.

My travels are done, but my students are never more than a phone call or an e-mail or a Facebook message away. And from the lessons I learned on the road, I, to borrow from the great Lou Gehrig, will die feeling like the luckiest man on Earth.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Menasche.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT