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.”
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.
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.”
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