After A Cancer Diagnosis, Lessons In Priorities

Teaching high school English came naturally to David Menasche but a terminal brain cancer diagnosis forced him to leave the classroom. So he visited some of his former students to see what impact he's had on them. He writes about the experience in his forthcoming book, The Priority List.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Christmas is here and later in the program, we have a special gift for you. Some of our favorite conversations of the year from translating hip-hop lyrics into sign language, to a legendary musician turning personal grief into powerful song. First, though, a teacher who's inspiring his students less with his lesson plans and more with his life.

David Menasche taught English in a Miami high school for years. But as he approached the final stages of terminal brain cancer, Menasche decided it was time to hit the road. He spent more than a hundred days traveling hundreds of miles by train and car visiting some of his former students. And he wrote about the journey in a upcoming book called, "The Priority List: A Teacher's Final Quest to Discover Life's Greatest Lessons." And he joins me now. David, welcome to the program.

DAVID MENASCHE: Thank you, Celeste.

HEADLEE: It wasn't after you got diagnosed that you decided to go on this trip. What's shocked me a bit was that it was after you'd actually lost a large...

MENASCHE: Exactly.

HEADLEE: ...Portion of your vision when it would be the hardest - the most difficult, it seems to be, to go traveling. Why then?

MENASCHE: Well, it wasn't the diagnosis of brain cancer that got me motivated to go on the trip. It was actually this past July 10, 2012, I suffered a stroke that took away the left side of my body and half of my vision. And at that point, I realized I couldn't teach anymore, as I couldn't drive. I couldn't even get to work, much less watch a over a class of 30 students. So bored, frustrated and feeling purposeless, I decided to take a trip to go visit my former students. So I put a post on Facebook, and within 48 hours, I had offers in 50 different cities, which led to a trip of over 8,000 miles, 75 different students and different couches, over 101 days, and as you said, a book.

HEADLEE: So did you basically decide to visit each student that invited you on Facebook? Or did you...

MENASCHE: Yes.

HEADLEE: ...Pick and choose?

MENASCHE: No, my intention was to go see every single one of them, but unfortunately, because of circumstances - you know, kids get sick, people get pulled out of town, things like that happen - I didn't get to see every single one of the students that I had got an offer from. But I did get the lion's share of it. Making it all the way to the Pacific Ocean for the first time for me.

HEADLEE: So the question you were asking these students was what kind of impact did I have on your life, right?

MENASCHE: I wanted to know if I made a difference.

HEADLEE: Do you think you were able to get an honest answer from them? I mean, I would imagine that with you sitting right in front of them...

MENASCHE: Absolutely. I had quite a few students tell me, oh, I hated your class. You put me on the spot all of the time. I never felt prepared. But, you know, at the same time, I would ask them, did that in any way help you? And very frequently the answer would be yes.

You know, that being forced to think on their feet, being forced to answer questions ultimately was a benefit. But no, not all of them were, you know, just fawning over me, which was good because that's what I wanted was an honest answer. But for the most part, I got a range within each one of them where they would say, this part of the class was amazing. This other part of the class, I could've done without.

HEADLEE: So tell me about maybe one or two students whose responses really stick out for you, either because they were so surprising or because they were so meaningful.

MENASCHE: OK. Well, for instance, Kim Carrick (ph), who now lives in Blacksburg, Virginia. She was hurting herself in high school, actually burning herself. And through this assignment that I had called "The Priority List," I was able to figure out that she was hurting herself and actually counsel her and help her and get her to stop that. And for her, it was life-changing because, as she revealed to me when I saw her in Blacksburg, Virginia, she was suicidal.

And if I hadn't caught that and talked to her when I did, she wouldn't have made it out of the school year. So there were things along the road trip, like that, that revealed to me just how influential some of the things that I did actually were.

HEADLEE: The title of your book, The Priority List, isn't just about you making priorities.

MENASCHE: No.

HEADLEE: But it's about this assignment. Tell me what the assignment was for your students.

MENASCHE: OK. I created a list of 26 abstract words. Words such as love, power, respect, spirituality, family. And I asked the kids to put them in order of personal importance. Afterwards, I would quiz them. I would take their list and look at it, and then ask them, OK, what's more important to you, fun or family? And they needed to answer the same way the list was so I knew it was accurate. If they didn't, I asked them to look at the list again and get it right. So after I questioned them a few times and felt confident that the list was accurate as an emotional snapshot of them at that very moment, I would offer to them, if they wanted to, to - I had the list projected on the board - to go up to the board and write their own personal numbers next to it for all the class to see. And then from there, I would read it, ask them questions and come to an interpretation.

And after 15 years of doing this with so many thousands of students, I started to realize that there were patterns. For instance, when I saw a word like power, placed next to sex, it meant something. If I saw health, for instance, next to family, it usually meant that the person wasn't thinking about their own health but someone in their family. So I would read the list, ask them questions and do a little bit of analysis and help the kids come to a bit of a better understanding of who they were at that moment. And then later in the year, we would do the list again. And it would be completely different. If you would to do it today and do it again in three days, everything that happens to you over those three days changes your list. If you and your partner break up, maybe love goes down on the list for you.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with David Menasche, author of the upcoming book, "The Priority List." So your trip was certainly not a cruise. It was sometimes very difficult. There's a part where you had to hitchhike through Alabama. I have to imagine that not only were you worried for your safety, but your family must have been terribly worried about you.

MENASCHE: Well, I must admit, when you have terminal brain cancer, you develop a certain fearlessness. I mean, what's the worst that could have happened? What's inevitably going to happen anyway?

HEADLEE: Fair enough, touche. But your family, they must have been worried.

MENASCHE: Not really. I've always been this kind of a person, and just because I've become disabled, isn't going to change my personality or my spirit. And if anything, it developed within me a sense of urgency, that if I was ever going to see these kids again, it had to be now 'cause the thing about my situation is, it's not going to improve. At best, I can stay the same.

HEADLEE: So I can absolutely see the value of this journey, of chronicling it, of writing down the responses from your former students. What's the benefit of your journey and what you took away with it? How does that benefit the reader?

MENASCHE: Well, it depends on who the reader is. I think different types of readers are going to come away with it with different messages and lessons. For instance, a teacher who is reading this book, hopefully, comes away with a perspective on their career and on their influence over their students that, perhaps, they didn't previously understand. And as far as other people who, like myself, are in traumatic situations, whether they are facing death, disability or just hardship, I want them to know that there is still a way to live a life of purpose, happiness, joy and fulfillment. I mean, even in my situation, mostly blind and I'm hemiplegic, partially crippled, it can be done. And if I can do it, anybody can and should.

HEADLEE: So let's go back to this idea of the priority list.

MENASCHE: Sure.

HEADLEE: Do you make priority lists for yourself? Regularly?

MENASCHE: Not regularly, no, but I have been asked to do it frequently. So I've gone through it, and strangely what would now be my number one is a word that's not even on the list. It wasn't there when I created it.

HEADLEE: What is it?

MENASCHE: Which is strength.

HEADLEE: Are you talking about physical strength? It sounds like you're talking about mental strength.

MENASCHE: I don't really see a clear separation between those. People who have physical strength develop it out of a discipline, a will that comes from a mental strength. But for me, it would be simply a kind of stoic ability to endure what my life has become.

HEADLEE: Do you think - I mean, you said that anybody, even if they have a disability or not, that they should go out and do this now, revisit former people.

MENASCHE: Yes, because if you're not living a life of joy and you're just sitting around there counting the days and suffering, then what's the point? I mean, it ultimately becomes a decision of a life of quantity - which you can have if you want to go through all of the treatments and just sit on your couch safely - or life of quality. And one of the things that I learned while I was traveling is that the average person really doesn't want to be free. They simply want to be secure, safe. And whereas I was absolutely free while I was on the road, I was most certainly not secure. And it's very difficult to have both at the same time.

HEADLEE: In some ways impossible.

MENASCHE: I think so.

HEADLEE: So do you now have constant contact with some of these former students?

MENASCHE: I do. I do. We initially made contact, as I said, through Facebook. They're still my Facebook friends. I have all their phone numbers and e-mail addresses, and I do stay in touch and plan to do more traveling and see even more of them if I can.

HEADLEE: So your recommendation if - your recommendation, for example, to me, who is not disabled or has - I can absolutely travel in comfort and probably more safety and security than you did.

MENASCHE: Then why not? It wasn't about enduring additional hardships. That was simply the best way to get around the country and actually see it. When you're flying above it at 30,000 feet, you miss all the fun parts.

HEADLEE: So you're basically an advertisement for Amtrak.

MENASCHE: And hitchhiking. And just, you know, hitting up friends for rides. And, frequently, it was just piggybacking one ride to another where I would ask somebody to take me as far north as they were willing to go. And they'd get me half way up the state, and then I'd get picked up from somebody else. The trains were mostly to cover the distance between the students where I could not find rides. And hitchhiking was an emergency situation that came up a few times.

HEADLEE: All right, so back to your priority list. If number one is strength, what are the rest of the top five?

MENASCHE: I would say right behind that would be independence and behind that honor. After that, family, friends, fun. At the very bottom of my own personal list would be possessions, shelter and probably spirituality, believe it or not.

HEADLEE: OK, David Menasche. His upcoming book is called "The Priority List: A Teacher's Final Quest to Discover Life's Greatest Lessons." He joined us from member station WLRN in Miami. David, thank you so much.

MENASCHE: Thank you, Celeste.

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