Eulogy for an Educator

Note: I wrote this a few weeks ago, after we lost an amazing educator. I wasn’t sure if I would post it, but I had a discussion today that convinced me to share it. Thanks for reading.

There is a spirit of compassion in every educator that transcends infinity. What we do in those classrooms every day — We can tell you what it takes, but that doesn’t really tell you what it takes. It’s not just blood, sweat, and tears; we give our souls, our hearts, our memories. Our nightmares and our dreams, our minds and our fingernails. Every student who won’t listen, every book left unread, every lost opportunity — they weigh on us like rocks upon Giles Corey. “More weight,” we cry. Sylvia Ashton-Warner said: “Not just part of us becomes a teacher. It engages the whole self — the woman or man, wife or husband, mother or father, the lover, scholar or artist in you as well as the teacher earning money.”

I knew Jane Skalitsky, but (as with so many of the amazing women and men at Sun Prairie High School) not nearly as well as I should have known her. That distance is not a salve in this hour of pain, however — it is a burden of grief. What might I have learned from her, about compassion? About reaching young people? About holding on?

Some days, it’s really hard to hold on. I don’t mean sanity or hope — I mean holding on to the vision that drives us. Holding on to the people around us. It’s so easy to let those things slip and retreat into something else, something easier. Something that requires less energy. Lots of people do that; they stop holding on. Pablo Neruda said: “Between lips and voice, something went off to die; something with bird’s wings, something of anguish and forgetting. Like nets which can’t hold water.” I can’t speak with personal certainty, but I assume others will correct me if I am wrong: Jane held on.

Utah Phillips told a story once about a guy named Eddie Belchowski, who had lost a hand in the Spanish Civil War. He said Eddie taught him powerful things about holding on. When he heard that Eddie died, he wrote a death song for his friend. Then he got a call from Eddie. (He asked him: “Hey Eddie, where ya calling from?” He said Chicago, and Utah said: “Well, dead or in Chicago, it’s all the same to me.”) Utah sang Eddie his death song, and he was amused. Then, a few months later, Eddie died. And Utah Phillips sang his death song at the funeral.

That story is the last track on the album he made with Ani DiFranco, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, and it’s a perfect finish.

For teachers, the past doesn’t go anywhere. Our lives only expand with every new student; we absorb what the universe throws at us, like some kind of mutant pedagogical sponge. Our students don’t go anywhere; they live inside our minds beside our favorite teachers. And somewhere in the cluster of galaxies beyond our consciousness, our favorite teachers work with every student we’ve known.

Because as Chief Seattle said, there is no death. There’s only a changing of worlds. The Vietnamese zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh explains that we look at a cloud and think of it as a distinct entity. But when it is time for that cloud to become rain, we can still love the rain that it becomes, and take solace in the continued existence of the cloud-now-rain as a vital continuity of our world. I will add: This is especially true for teachers, because teachers imbue themselves into everything they touch. Teaching is an act of transfusion, a daily transfer of precious intellectual fluids. (Also mental, psychological, spiritual, emotional, and sociopolitical fluids.)

This teaching stuff is confusing. I’ve been teaching for 15 years, but I feel like I don’t really know what I’m doing. I wrote a book about teaching this summer, but I can’t help feeling like a fraudulent “expert”. I think we all feel this way from time to time. There’s no way to describe it, and if you’ve never done it, then you have no idea. Anne Sexton once said: “I am teaching … It’s kind of like having a love affair with a rhinoceros.”

But never is this more true than when we discuss special education. That name doesn’t fit because the students are special — although they are. But all students are special. They are all unique and beautiful snowflakes, to ironically appropriate the words of Tyler Durden. We call it special education because the teachers are special. Most of us can’t do what they do; I know I can’t.

The more I hear about Jane Skalitsky, the more she reminds me of my mother. My mom was the first teacher I ever met, and she devoted her entire life to special education kids. Her students came from backgrounds of every stripe and flavor. Abuse, illness, neglect, suffering, boredom, poverty, confusion, chaos, distance — these are the worlds from which her students came. (Plenty of students in “regular ed” deal with less acute versions of these experiences, of course.) Ordinary people like me can’t confront these worlds like special ed teachers do. When I was subbing in the Madison area, I always felt bad when I hit the “no thanks” button when the SubFinder robot called at 4:00 AM asking if I would fill in for a special ed absence. But I never felt confident that I could give the kids what they need. I watched my mom do it for years, and I was never as capable or talented as that.

Jane Skalitsky didn’t run from the challenges that came toward her. She poured herself into the students like we all try to do. I feel weird talking about her like this, since I didn’t know her very well. But — again — I trust those with the personal connections will stop me if I need to be corrected.

No one teaches who isn’t ready to sacrifice. Some of us give more than others, and that’s all there is to it. We’re all afraid that we’ll give too much, but we don’t let that stop us. Our love for the young people is stronger than our fear. I didn’t know Jane very well, but I know somehow from something deep inside me that her love always overpowered whatever fears she may have had.

My mother was afraid of what the chemotherapy would do to my father, but she loved him enough to endure it with him. And when he finally died, she was afraid that she might endure the same pain if she ever married again. But she did. And then she did. (My father died from multiple myeloma. My stepfather died from lung cancer.) And despite this pain and the fear that it might come back to haunt her again, she has never grown cold. She knows that her love is stronger than her fear, and she refuses to let the fear win.

You can’t grow cold, if you’re a teacher. Maybe some can — my 11th grade math teacher seemed pretty cold. But maybe I just felt that way because I never got the hang of pre-calculus. I don’t know any cold teachers at Sun Prairie High School, and I can’t imagine anyone with a cold heart lasting two days in special ed. Peter, Lance, Lori, Patty, Amy, Latrina — these people teach me every day about what it means to conquer fear with love. Because for all the talk of SLOs and PPGs and PBIS and RTI and IEPs and 504s and ELL and ESL and 21st century learning and differentiation and scaffolding and personalized curriculum and bundled classes and flexible scheduling and all the rest of it is one simple question: Can you love the students enough — and get them to love themselves — to conquer their fear of failure? Can you teach them how to be more human?

Ralph Ellison said: “If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and I will help to make the desert bear fruit.”

We’re in a desert of loss right now, maybe even feeling a drought of hope. But the cloud has become a rainfall, and as we sing Jane’s praises, her enduring presence is helping the desert to bear fruit.