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Teacher's cancer tale inspires ex-students

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In 1998, high school English teacher David Menasche was diagnosed with cancer -- a horribly tragic, horribly common diagnosis. This memoir tells the story of Menasche's uncommon response to his brain-cancer diagnosis.

Menasche is a dynamic, idealistic 34-year-old teacher, happily satisfied in both his personal life and his career, when he is hit with the news that he has a cancerous brain tumour "about the size of a golf ball." For the next six years he endures a gruelling regime of cancer treatments, including surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation, while still continuing to teach.

His devotion to his students is truly remarkable. Witness Menasche ducking into the washroom to vomit between classes, or stepping into the hallway to spare his students the awkwardness of witnessing a seizure -- a saint-like level of commitment.

But Menasche doesn't really want to talk about this battle. His real interest is in telling us about the impact he hopes he has made on his beloved students through an assignment called the Priority List -- first a tool to understand the great characters of literature, and then for students to understand themselves.

Adoring letters from students scattered throughout the book contribute to the picture of an inspiring, devoted teacher. His instincts and insight about how to connect with teens -- anecdotes such as a student arriving at class drunk and being treated with care and concern confirm this -- plus his boundless energy and a lifelong passion for literature combine to make him, it sounds like, an ideal teacher.

The Priority List forms the backbone of this memoir. When a seizure leaves him partially paralyzed and virtually blind, he is forced out of the classroom. In anger and frustration, he decides to quit all medical treatment.

With little money and a failing marriage behind him, Menasche posts a note on Facebook to the 3,000 students he's taught over the last 15 years, now spread across the U.S.: "Let me know where you are and if you've got a couch for a night."

Menasche tells us that the outpouring of love and offers of a place to stay make him break down in a way he rarely has, even during his battle with cancer. There were, he says "tears of gratitude that the kids I'd nurtured wanted to give something back to their teacher."

In the last half of the book Menasche explains how he set out on the road to see how his students had internalized the Priority List. Did they remember their lists? Were they living their lives according to their values? Yes and yes, Menasche hears time and again. His student's lives were altered by their experience in his class and the Priority List -- Menasche had succeeded.

Booksellers will likely shelve The Priority List alongside memoirs like Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie and Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture. Like Albom and Pausch, Menasche tries to occupy that tricky space between teacher and preacher. He wants his story to guide and inspire, he wants to speak to his students not from the pulpit but at eye level -- their eye level.

But somewhere between the classroom and the page, the magic of the lessons he created for his students goes missing. There is a lack of depth and nuance in Menasche's tale of how he inspired others; it actually belongs on the shelf closer to Robert Fulghum's simple advice book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.


Charlotte Duggan is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2014 G8


Updated on Saturday, March 15, 2014 at 8:14 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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