Thursday, September 19, 2013

Thank you, Joan

Dear Joan, 
What can I say today but thank you?  There is such a lot to thank you for. 

Thank you, first, for the always open door of your classroom, Room 119. Thank you for showing us what great teaching looks like. For leading discussions from a student desk. For getting students out of their desks and on their feet. For introducing them not just to John Steinbeck, William Shakespeare, and Franz Kafka, but also to Ella Fitzgerald, Edward Hopper, and Diego Rivera. 

You were a master of your craft, but you worked tirelessly to improve both your practice and your profession--and you brought us with you. You got us to conferences and seminars which inspired us and moved our practice forward--and still you could see more for us. Many of us led our first teacher in-service workshops, presented our first seminars, and published our first journal articles with your encouragement and your guidance. 

We spent hours with you in 119, working on a piece of writing, defining the purpose, refining the tone. “Let’s just poke at it a little,” you used to say. When I write, I feel you sitting next to me. I hear your voice in my ear. 

But you were more than just a visionary teacher and 119 was more than just a classroom. It was also a refuge. 119 was a place where students and colleagues could trust you with their stories, their lives. Broken hearts, broken families, hard-won successes and hard choices--you allowed all of that messiness in and walked through it with us.

You taught us how stick up for ourselves, how to ask for what we wanted, how to manage difficult people: “Just throw some love at them,” you said once. You taught us how to throw parties. How to snap asparagus, mince garlic, chiffonade basil. How to play poker. How to smuggle tequila into Shoreline Amphitheater. How to chat up an art gallery owner. How to apologize to an angry girlfriend and then where to take her out for dinner. 

You were right about so much. You always knew you were right, even when you were wrong. Thank you for laughing with us and for allowing us our victory dances when you did made a mistake. You must have known we couldn’t help it--it was like tripping over a diamond. 

Thank you for exhorting us to Be. Nice. “Do you know what that means?” you asked a teenager about to drop a spitball into the mouth of his sleeping friend, “It’s not just about treating others the way you want to be treated. It’s about treating others the way they want to be treated. Be. Nice.” 

Be Nice is why you were our fairy godmother. Thank you for conjuring up exactly what we needed, even if it wasn’t always what we’d asked for. A bouquet of sunflowers. A lesson plan. A bag of trail mix for a ravenous pregnant woman. A therapist recommendation. A phone call. A hug. Thank you, Joan.

Thank you for making a family out of what could have been just a loosely-knit group of friends and colleagues, teachers and students. Thank you for wedding and baby showers, for Everybody’s Birthday Party, for Derby Day, for Oktoberfest. Thank you for adopting me and countless others, and making each of us feel like your favorite godchild or your favorite cousin. Thank you, Joan, for truly seeing each one of us, and for embracing us with boundless generosity and joy. 

You taught us that in a proper thank you note, one must give a gift to the recipient of the note. The gift should be a glimpse of one’s life--so that the reader can enter into it. So here it is. I am standing at the podium in Memorial Church at Stanford in front of a crowd of people, a place I never thought I would be. I am wearing a brand new black dress, and I’m worried about smudging my eye makeup. The afternoon sun streams through the stained glass, and I can see the sky, blindingly blue, through the windows flanking the organ. The dome above is all light and angels. It’s beautiful.

Amidst this beauty, I imagine being back at your house with you on your deck, watching a piece of light filter through the leaves of the trees you loved so much, listening to you tell me about something that makes your heart sing. I wish we could be all together again, Joan. 

Maybe we are. Not in the way that we wish, but here together all the same.

Thank you for loving us, Joan. We love you, we miss you, and once again, with all our hearts, we thank you.

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