Very few people are lucky enough to love their job as much as David Menasche loved teaching high school English in Miami. One of his favorite lessons was called "The Priority List," in which he asked his students to rank ten words—wealth, love, education, for example—in order of importance to them.
Even after he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2006, David continued teaching—until a debilitating seizure in 2012 made returning to the classroom impossible.
Instead of giving up and letting his illness become the focus of his life, David reevaluated his own priorities, ultimately deciding to end his treatment and embark on a journey to reconnect with former students, who were scattered across the country. Fifty cities and 8,000 miles later, David has reunited with more than 100 students, all eager to let him know the positive influence he's had on their lives.
Menasche shares his courageous journey in his new, incredibly moving memoir, The Priority List, which will inspire readers to reflect and reassess their own priorities. In this guest blog post, David shares the story of the "no-going-back" day he realized he wanted to become a teacher.
For me, teaching wasn’t making a living. It was my life. Nothing made me happier or more content than standing in front of a classroom and watching my students “catch” my passion for language and literature.
For 16 years I taught 11th graders at a magnet high school in Miami, and my classroom was my sanctuary. So much so that on the day before Thanksgiving in 2006 when, at the age of 34, I was diagnosed with Glioblastoma multiforme, an incurable form of brain cancer, and told I had less than a year to live, I did what I always did: I went to school.
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 ultimately it will win this battle of wills. But I choose to live for today and cherish the memories of yesterday. I may no longer get to be in a classroom, but my time as a teacher was time well spent.
The novelist Alice Sebold wrote, “Sometimes the dreams that come true are the dreams you never even knew you had.” I backed into my dream-come-true while I was studying journalism at Eugene Lang College at the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village. One of my favorite professors convinced me to sign up for the Teachers and Writers Program. The program placed aspiring writers in New York public schools and gave them the opportunity to teach. I was sent to teach a group of eager first-graders in upstate New York.
The small village, with its frozen pond in the center, was enchanting to a Miami kid like me. On my very first day, I decided that I wasn’t going to teach the kids by the book. Instead, I read to them from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. I couldn’t help but be animated and energetic when I read it, as Whitman had always had that effect on me. When I looked out at my six-year-old students, sitting Indian-style in front of me, I saw wonder in their eyes. Their hands shot up, and they called out questions before I’d even finished reading. Watching their reaction to Whitman’s poetry, I got an idea. “Tell you what,” I said, “why don’t we go outside and write our own poems.”
The kids squealed with delight. I bundled them up and marched them outside like a flock of ducklings. Giving each one a small stack of yellow Post-it notes and crayons, I asked them to write down the things they saw—one item per piece of paper. They ran around looking at everything, and like Whitman, I thought, they had a blissful enthusiasm for their surroundings. They wrote words like “rock” and “leaf” and “snow.”
After I noticed one of my little duckies with frozen snot on her upper lip and shivering, I shepherded everyone back inside and asked the kids to stick their notes up on the board and rearrange them until they were in an order that they liked. When they were finished, they had written a poem. The students jumped up and down with the same sense of accomplishment and joy that I felt watching them learn.
That was it for me. There was no turning back. That was the moment I knew I wanted to be a teacher.
Thank you so much, David. Readers, The Priority List is out now, and you can continue to follow David's journey on Facebook.
(Author photo by Chris Granger)
Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph by Jennifer Pharr Davis
Beaufort Books • $24.95 • ISBN 9780825306938
published June 10, 2013
As a fan of Becoming Odyssa, her memoir of first hiking the AT after college, I was thrilled when I learned that Davis had written a new book, Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph, about her recent record-breaking experience. Certain to entertain readers—fellow hikers or not—this is a story of perseverance and grit, love, dedication and sacrifice. It’s not so much about being the fastest AT hiker ever, as about taking on a challenge, consistently doing your best and allowing yourself to rely on other people to help you along the way.
Readers feeling unsure of themselves or frustrated by societal pressures regarding what they should look like, act like and/or focus on would benefit from reading Davis’ story, which offers plenty of inspiration for becoming a better "me."
Here are Davis’ thoughts after Anne Riddle Lundblad, an accomplished ultra-runner, tells Jen she’s a role model:
"I mean, how does hiking the Appalachian Trail in a short amount of time positively impact anyone? But Anne made me realize that being a role model isn’t about inspiring other people to be like you; it is about helping them to be the fullest version of themselves. The main legacy of this endeavor would not be to encourage others to set a record on the Appalachian Trail, but to encourage them to be the best form of their truest selves. And it just so happened that my best form was a hiker."
"No one seemed interested in what I'd learned or what the most valuable part of the experience had been. Instead, everyone wanted to talk about how I averaged 46.93 miles per day. . . . Why didn't anyone ask about the notions of living in the present or choosing something purposeful and fulfilling over something fun and easy? Or the idea that persistence and consistency can be more valuable than speed or strength? . . . Why did no one realize that the most miraculous part of the summer was not the record, but how well my husband had loved me?!"
If you’ve read Wild, the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, you know it is about much more than just hiking. Such is Davis’ story, too. The white blaze and rolling mountains on the cover will pull you in, and by the time you reach the end of the trail atop Springer Mountain, you’ll be wondering how you, too, can find your best self.
Next week, I'll be hiking in the Tetons with my husband, and, having read Called Again, I know that I'll be a "better me" while I'm there. What book(s) have inspired you to become a better version of yourself?
BEA is all about building buzz for books. Publisher booths are festooned with posters heralding the big fall releases from authors like Mitch Albom, James Patterson and Diana Gabaldon. But being at BEA also allows for readers to make smaller, but equally significant, discoveries. Our advertising manager Angie Bowman has just such a story:
The memoir Unremarried Widow was literally shoved into my hands while I was walking the show. I almost left it in the booth because I don't read much nonfiction, but the back cover letter from the editor compared the story to The Time Traveler's Wife. That's my all-time favorite book, so that was all the description I needed to convince me to stick with it. I read it on the plane ride back from BEA and I bawled my eyes out almost the entire flight. I could hardly speak I was crying so hard. A girl sitting near me on the plane asked me what I was reading because obviously it must be really good! Unremarried Widow was a heart-wrenching memoir. Artis Henderson is a master storyteller and writer. If you are looking for reading suggestions, Bowman highly recommends.
The inimitable Grace Coddington, creative director of Vogue, visited Nashville this weekend to chat with model Karen Elson about her new memoir, Grace, at a sold-out event at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. You probably know Coddington from the film The September Issue (or as Coddington calls it in the opening lines of Grace, “the only reason anyone has ever heard of me.”) where she played the foil to the ice queen Anna Wintour.
It is this general waving-off of her brilliance and her monumental influence on the last half a century of fashion that sets Coddington apart from the rest of the fashion world. The same romantic humor and refreshing, familiar unpretentiousness that is found in Grace is, wonderfully, exactly how Coddington, with her shaved eyebrows and distinguishable head of red Welsh hair, seemed before an audience of Nashville’s most fashionable.
The first time Elson—Coddington’s self-declared doppelganger—introduced Coddington, it was at the 2009 British Fashion Awards, and a wrong step sent Elson “head over heels into the orchestra pit” and left her with a cracked rib. Elson’s sophomore attempt at hosting Coddington left everyone intact as they chatted lightly, trading mutual adoration, reminiscing on modeling, heralding the era of grunge and giggling over Coddington’s doodles of cats.
Although modeling and cats were the topics du jour, readers will be pleased to know that Grace only briefly covers Coddington’s modeling career, devoting more chapters to working with photographers and designers, her favorite Vogue spreads, boyfriends and, of course, cats. She imbues her writing with a sense of laa-dee-da that comes from a life of good-humored charm, and she seems only to lament the passing of time when discussing fashion’s transition into the digital age. A victorious doodle captioned “Eureka! I just opened my first email” makes light even of these monumental changes.
No matter the topic, Coddington’s message is one of perseverance. She commiserated with Elson on the criticism thrust upon models, particularly when Eileen Ford, “the American doyenne of all model agents,” announced that Coddington’s 18-inch waist was “Fat! Fat! Fat!” She became a model anyway, and so much more. It’s this attitude that makes Grace more than just a who’s-who of fashion greats, as she writes:
"For me, one of the most important aspects of my work is to give people something to dream about, just as I used to dream all those years ago as a child looking at beautiful photographs. I still weave dreams, finding inspiration wherever I can and looking for romance in the real, not the digital, world.”
As part of our Best Books of 2012 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
In 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini called for Salman Rushdie’s death for his “blasphemous” novel The Satanic Verses, a move which not only forced Rushdie into hiding for over a decade, but also stirred vigorous debate over the unconditional right of free speech. The vast span of this memoir chronicles years of flight, the paths taken toward writing The Satanic Verses—and every juicy opinion Rushdie kept bottled up until now.
BookPage's author page for Salman Rushdie.
View our complete Best Books of 2012 list.
As part of our Best Books of 2012 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
Paul Auster made his breakthrough debut with his memoir The Invention of Solitude; 30 years later, he looks at his life again, now as it nears its end. This is an unconventional memoir, as Auster revisits life through the story of his body—where it has been, what it has felt and the memories it bears. The writing moves like memory itself, meandering and pliant—often abstract—stopping here and there to contemplate his journey and to encourage the reader to do the same.
Read our review.
First she thought she had bed bugs. Then she thought she was overworked. A friend suggested that she might have bipolar disorder. After a month of tests totaling almost a million dollars, Susannah Cahalan drew a clock at the request of the doctor. The drawing showed that her brain was inflamed.
Cahalan, a journalist, chronicles her journey from sane to manic to catatonic and back, relying on interviews with family and friends to shed light on the month she can hardly remember in her new book, Brain on Fire.
Read our interview with Cahalan at BookPage.com and check out this interview style trailer where she elaborates on her month of madness:
What do you think about Cahalan's experience? What are you reading right now?
Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie
Random House • $30 • ISBN 9780812992786
In stores September 18, 2012
On February 14, 1989, Salman Rushdie (Midnight's Children) received a call from a BBC reporter telling him that Ayatollah Khomeini put out a fatwa on him for the publication of his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses. Rushdie's new memoir, Joseph Anton, tells the story of how that moment transformed his life forever, as he was forced underground with an armed police protection team, permanently in fear of the Muslim extremists literally out to kill him.
My reason for starting this book was simple: Rushdie is one of my all-time favorite writers. However, I rarely commit myself to nonfiction—I'm a novel and short story girl by nature—but I inhaled this one. The character of Joseph Anton (Rushdie's alias while in hiding) is written in the third-person he, allowing the present-day Rushdie some distance from his targeted former self, and giving the story a sense of fiction (because how could something like a novelist-directed fatwa be real life?).
The memoir is not limited to Rushdie's experiences living under the threat of murder, as he looks back upon all the elements that led him to write The Satanic Verses in the first place: life with his father, his schoolboy days, his simultaneous fascination and unbelief in God and, more specifically, Islam. There's also a certain juiciness to the whole thing, especially for those in the publishing industry, as Rushdie uses this book to lay bare every opinion he's ever had of anyone, as well as their opinions of him.
Catch a glimpse of Rushdie's consistently fabulous prose in the opener:
Afterwards, when the world was exploding around him and lethal blackbirds were massing on the climbing frame in the school playground, he felt annoyed with himself for forgetting the name of the BBC reporter, a woman, who had told him that his old life was over and a new, darker existence was about to begin. She had called him at home on his private line without explaining how she got the number. "How does it feel," she asked him, "to know that you have just been sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini?" It was a sunny Tuesday in London but the question shut out the light. This is what he said, without really knowing what he was saying: "It doesn't feel good." This is what he thought: I'm a dead man. He wondered how many days he had left to live and thought the answer was probably a single-digit number. He put down the telephone and ran down the stairs from his workroom at the top of the narrow Islington row house where he lived. The living room windows had wooden shutters and, absurdly, he closed and barred them. Then he locked the front door.
Whether you agree with the current presidential administration or not, odds are you like Michelle Obama; according to Gallup, 65% of Americans have a favorable opinion of the first lady. So, I thought many of you would appreciate a little tidbit I read at the bottom of a recent post on the New York Times' Caucus blog: "According to aides, the first lady is already gathering material for the memoir she will write one day."
Yippee! I know that a memoir written by a first lady is pretty much expected these days, but I won't lie and say I'm not very excited about a book penned by Mrs. O.
Speaking of memoirs written by high-powered women, there are a couple more in the works that might be of interest to women trying to get their foot in the door at work.
Kate White, the soon-to-be-former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, has written a book called I Shouldn't Be Telling You This: Success Secrets Every Gutsy Girl Should Know. HarperBusiness—who says the book is a "straight-talking new career guide for women"—will release the book on September 18. (By the way, White is also the author of the Bailey Weggins mystery series. Fans of those books should cheer her stepping down from Cosmo; she's leaving to concentrate on writing.)
A week ago, Publishers Marketplace posted the news that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg will publish a book with Knopf in 2013. Called Lean In, it is a:
"call to action" on challenges facing women in the workplace, providing what she calls "practical advice for women -- and the men who want to help them -- on how to lean in and close the gap" (via Publishers Marketplace)
Do you enjoy business books and memoirs of how women rose to the top of their careers? Are you interested in Michelle Obama's life story? Of all the many, many political memoirs out there, are there any you think that stand out from the crowd?
In Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails, Anthony Swofford (author of Jarhead) chronicles his own journey as a fame-flushed author with his cancer-stricken father as they travel 1,000 miles in a 44-foot-long RV.
Swofford doesn’t spare anyone in his account, not his lovers, not his family, not himself. He paints himself as a fast-living philanderer and a failure at being human. Fortunately, he is a studious traveler, and the journey ends on a hopeful note, with Swofford learning lessons from his dying father on how to lead a more meaningful life.
What do you think of Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails?