Six years into his no-holds-barred brawl with terminal brain cancer, David Menasche was partially blind and crippled. He couldn’t drive and he could barely read. Huge swaths of his memory had been wiped clean. His marriage was falling apart.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. He could no longer teach English in Room 211 at his beloved Coral Reef High, a mega magnet school in South Miami-Dade where he had been one of the founding teachers.
“I was afraid of losing my purpose in life,” recalled the Miami-born, Pembroke Pines-raised Menasche, now 41. “For so long I had lived to teach my students and I couldn’t even do that.”
So Menasche did what no sane person in his condition would seriously consider. He stopped treatment and set off on a cross-country trip at the end of 2012 to visit his former students. He wanted to know “what kind of legacy I was leaving and if I had made a difference in their lives.”
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The result of that journey is a memoir that explores one man’s search for love, family, purpose and gratitude. The Priority List: A Teacher’s Final Quest to Discover Life’s Greatest Lessons never offers facile answers — only an examined reality that is uplifting and even, at times, comical. Menasche will be speaking about his book Tuesday, Jan. 21 at Books & Books in Coral Gables.
The title is based on one of Menasche’s popular classroom lessons. When his students were struggling with Shakespeare’s Othello, Menasche came up with a list of abstract words that could be applied to anyone’s life — concepts such as honor, wealth, power, love and respect. He asked his class to number the words in the order the Othello characters might have done. The exercise was so effective he expanded the list over the years and began asking his students to apply the concepts to their own lives.
The first half of The Priority List chronicles Menasche’s time as a teacher, a career that, as he writes, “was what I loved, what I did, who I was.” The second half tracks a trip that began with a Facebook posting telling friends of his intent to travel. Within 48 hours, he had offers for places to stay from former students in 50 different towns. The trip eventually took him to 31 cities in 101 days to meet 75 of his former students. He recorded these visits in 1,840 pictures and 62 hours of audio, some posted on the book’s Facebook page.
“I really didn’t know what I was going to encounter,” he said during a phone interview from a home in New Orleans, which he temporarily shares with two former students. “But I wanted to find out if I had mattered in any way to all those students I had taught for 15 years.”
He found out the extent of his influence, all right. Though some students complained about boring classes and even more boring books — The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of Menasche’s favorite books, was a dud, for instance — he also discovered that the students had graduated with more than an appreciation of literature.
“For me he has always been a good role model,” said Stephen Palahach, a freelance writer in Brooklyn, who was his student when he was in ninth grade. “A lot of times I’ve asked myself in certain social situations, What would Menasche do?”
Menasche, he said, taught him to focus on what was important. When Palahach completed the priority list in high school, artistic expression was on top and spirituality at the bottom. Though that top priority has remained the same, “Menasche was right. As I’ve gotten older, spirituality has become more important.”
During Menasche’s visit last year, the two film buffs watched movies for hours. And in the end, “he left me with something. Just the way he lives, that total fearlessness he has, it’s inspirational.”
Menasch also visited Kim Kerrick in Blacksburg, Va. They toured nearby caverns but mostly they talked. And talked. Cancer may have done a number on his memory and his gait but, she noted, it had not stolen his humor. His cell phone ringtone, she said, is “If I Only Had a Brain” from the Wizard of Oz.
“He’s always pushed me up when I’m down...Just seeing him makes you think, ‘Really, what is holding me back when he’s walking around with Stage 4 brain cancer?’ ”
As Menasche zigged and zagged his way westward — he saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time — there were near misses and surprise encounters. In New York City, a very nice woman helped him find an address when he couldn’t see the street signs well enough. The woman turned out to be Sarah Jessica Parker, star of “Sex and the City.” He hadn’t recognized her.
In New Hampshire, he planned to visit Jessica Packer, a 2007 Coral Reef graduate who became a visual arts teacher, but her stomach flu kept them apart. No matter. They’ve still managed to stay in touch through social media, phone calls and emails. His influence on her life — and career — has not waned.
“I strive to have the same effect on my students that he had on me,” she said. “Because of him, I don’t look at a class as a whole. I look at each of my students as individuals.”
When Menasche returned home, he began dictating the book into his phone. He was exhausted but also thrilled by the memories and the lessons.
“I thought I would probably die on the trip,” he said, “but the trip actually saved me.” It gave him new purpose and showed him that how he lived and what he said influenced people he cared about.
Menasche’s health is currently stable. His latest MRI, taken about a month ago, showed the brain swelling had gone down.
He also serves as an ambassador for Voices Against Brain Cancer, a New York-based non-profit that raises funds for research and promotes awareness. In March, he expects to move back to South Florida from New Orleans. His regular treks for treatment in Baton Rouge were proving onerous, and in Miami he will return to his doctors at the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“A city is only as important as the people you have there,” he explained. “I love New Orleans, but my students, my friends, my family are all down there [in South Florida].”
For years, Menasche has been asked about his own priority list. During his 15 years as a teacher, he figured the concept of honor topped the list. Cancer has rearranged those priorities, though.
“For me now, it’s all about hope and strength,” he said. “It’s about whatever the next chapter of my life brings.”