David Menasche, the former Coral Reef High English teacher who wrote a poignant book about reconnecting with his former students after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, died Thursday.
He was 41. A family member posted the announcement on Menasche’s personal Facebook page, and the reaction was immediate.
“You are why I teach,” wrote Corinne Torres.
“David was and will continue to be an inspiration for us all,” posted Erik Geiger.
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His death was not unexpected. When he was diagnosed in 2006, he was given months to live, but he fought — and lived on his own terms — for a solid eight years, making motivational speeches and granting interviews until the last few weeks. He even took a picture of himself with a sign quoting a Dylan Thomas poem: Do not go gentle into the good night… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Menasche stopped teaching only after suffering a seizure in 2012. By then he had already undergone three surgeries, more than two years of chemotherapy and 30 rounds of radiation. The seizure weakened his left side and also greatly reduced his peripheral vision in both eyes.
Unable to return to Room 211 at his beloved Coral Reef High in South Miami-Dade, a mega-magnet he helped open back in 1997, he decided to go on a quest to find out whether he had made a difference in his students’ lives. He stopped treatment and set on a cross-country trip, by bus and train, to visit his former students.
“I wanted to find out if I had mattered in any way to all those students I had taught for 15 years,” he said in a Miami Herald interview earlier this year.
He had, very much so. When he posted his plan on Facebook, dubbing it The Vision Quest, he had offers of couches and beds in 50 different towns within 48 hours. The cross-country trip would eventually take him to 31 cities in 101 days to meet 75 of his former students.
He filmed and chronicled his journey, to the tune of 1,840 pictures and 62 hours of audio, and then put it together in an inspirational memoir that explores one man’s lifelong quest for love, family, purpose and gratitude. The Priority List: A Teacher’s Final Quest to Discover Life’s Great Lessons is being adapted for film, starring Steve Carell.
The title of the book comes from one of Menasche’s popular classroom lessons. When his students struggled with Shakespeare’s Othello, Menasche came up with a compilation of abstract concepts such as honor, power, wealth and love and asked the students to number them in the order the Othello characters would have done. He later expanded the list and began asking his students to apply the concepts to their own life.
Members of the Coral Reef High community mourned his passing Thursday. Denise Arnold, his best friend at the school, believes his lessons will live on, particularly the one he taught after leaving the classroom.
“I think his most lasting legacy is that when the chips are down, you can still do some amazing things,” she said. “Which he did.”
She attributed his success in the classroom to one rule: “He took notice of each student individually. They weren’t just a class. They were people he knew and cared about.”
Coral Reef High Principal Adrianne Leal called him “unique, one of a kind. His classroom wasn’t a class. It was a life lesson.”
Students loved him, she noted: “He had a cult following. He was straight up with them, and they respected that.”
Jamie Zucker took his English class as a ninth-grader in 2001. He not only taught her to write, but “he also taught me how to think out of the box. I really remember enjoying his class. You always looked forward to it.”
Her father, Warren Zucker, was a guidance counselor at Coral Reef High from 1997 until he retired in 2010. Menasche, he said, was an inspiration to both students and faculty.
“He was totally 100 percent in trying to get kids to realize their potential,” he said. “He challenged them, he encouraged them and he was never afraid to embrace a diversity of opinion.”
Fellow English teacher Amy Scott recounted an August day before Coral Reef High was to open for the first time in 1997.
“He was reading the roster and he started tearing up, so I asked him what was wrong,” she recalled. “He said, ‘I can’t believe these are my kids. Mine.’ That’s how he was. So passionate. So caring about each and every one of them.”