“She has been a beacon of hope for so many people… It’s because she’s so utterly human and so utterly graceful.’’
My students and I looked at the dedication pages of the books we’re reading, and agreed that we usually don’t bother to notice them.
Sharing the dedications with each other, we found two commonalities:
- Whether clear or cryptic, simple or elaborate, earnest or irreverent, each dedication was heartfelt.
- We didn’t know any of the dedicatees.
The dedication to one of the students’ favorite books reads:
To Esther Earl.
Many of my students have read this book, and most have seen the movie, but none knew who Esther Earl was. So we read her Boston Globe obituary. Esther’s sixteen years teach us that, as John Green says, “a short life can also be a good and rich life.”
Vocabulary we learned from the obituary includes demeanor, muse, vibrant, terminal, domain, precocious, and beacon. I asked each student to pick one and use it in a sentence Esther would declare awesome. Here’s my favorite (yes, it’s two sentences, but neither is it unawesome):
Yesterday I had a vibrant taco. It grew legs and walked out of my hands.
“Yoel was a brilliant man.” – Michael Dukakis
Yoel Camayd-Freixas, “a distinguished academic dedicated to making life fuller for the Latino and underserved populations,” lived to tackle complex challenges. He created the Boston Public Schools’ research and evaluation office, engineered the election of Massachusetts’ first Latino representative, and – at Jimmy Carter’s request – helped convince Fidel Castro to allow family reunification visits to Cuba.
His talents extended beyond, too:
He was “a great cook of Cuban food,’’ said José Massó, a longtime friend who has the “Con Salsa’’ program on WBUR. At family urging, he recently wrote a cookbook.
Our classroom, alas, lacks a kitchen. But we did learn from his obituary what “advocate” and “viable” mean, and examined their Latin roots vox and via, both of which aptly symbolize the life of Yoel Camayd-Freixas.
“She saw so many people struggling, people who had to choose between groceries and medications… She’d walked in their shoes with cancer, and she wanted to help.”
Mary-Margaret Almonte founded a charity to pay for the medications of fellow cancer patients.
Her Boston Globe obituary teaches us what it means to have a flair for something (hers was “accessorizing, particularly with colorful scarves”), as well as what it means to walk in someone else’s shoes.
One theme we explore in class is how protagonists – whether Joey Pigza, Cassie Logan, or Ulysses – face dilemmas. It’s inspiring to see the grace with which Ms. Almonte faced hers. One student recalled that a heroic trait of Ulysses was his flair for strategy, and noted the similarity in how Ms. Almonte prepared for her son’s life without her.
In 2008, Ms. Almonte earned her English Language Learner teaching certification. Four years later, she was named English Language Learner Teacher of the Year.
[E]qual parts entertainer, shaman, motivational speaker and, as he liked to say, “holy fool.”
Brother Blue would think it sacrilegious foolishness for my 6th graders to sit quietly for his obituary, so we had some fun.
It taught us the word idiosyncratic, which I defined as a polite way of saying strange. I instructed them to imagine they were at a fancy party: “Go around and introduce yourselves to each other in an idiosyncratic way.” I’ll leave you to imagine what ensued.
His obituary also taught us persona, so students invented their own. My favorite was Too Face, created by a boy with a less than enthusiastic attitude to school. While invisibly munching on snacks and playing video games, his persona is outwardly scholarly.
We also wrote epitaphs for Brother Blue. This one seemed about right to me: “A Very Original Man.”
And now my teacher persona will make these observations about Brother Blue’s obituary:
- During World War II, Mr. Hill was in the Army, where he served in the European and Pacific theaters… For an example of why background knowledge is important for reading comprehension, consider how confusing this use of theater can be in a performer’s obituary.
- It mentioned his brother was mentally retarded, thus providing the opportunity for my speech “Retarded does not mean stupid, and retard should never be used as an insult.” Don’t like the year to go out without delivering that one.
- You see words pop up again and again in obituaries, and not necessarily the ones you’d expect. For example, both Brother Blue and Mark Fidrych were “gangly.” (Gangly is what we in the business call a Tier 3 word.)
- Persona is one of those words that’s learned so much more easily by example than by definition (e.g. Superman: Clark Kent; Marshall Mathers: Slim Shady; etc). I noticed the same thing when we read Samantha Sadd’s obituary: rarely have I seen a roomful of blanker faces than when I defined what an allegorical name was; rarely have I seen so rapid a shift to understanding than when I added, “You know, like: Hope. Destiny. April. Hunter. Rose…”
- In an obit full of good sentences, this was my favorite: His thesis, on prison storytelling, was performed with a 25-piece jazz orchestra.
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“Mr. Zakim started a black-Jewish Passover seder in the early 1980’s as relations between the two groups deteriorated. Six people showed up… This year, 650 attended.”
If you spend any time driving in Boston, you learn certain names by rote, e.g. Sumner, Callahan, Tobin, or Logan. But if you’re like me, you can’t identify these transportation namesakes without looking them up. (OK, fine, Ted Williams. But you see my point.)
I drive over the Zakim Bridge at least eight times a week. I hadn’t known for whom it was named until I received this suggestion: “Kids today should learn about Lenny.”
Zakim’s New York Times obituary describes a man who made a life of uniting people for good.
It offers the vocabulary words anti-Semitism, defamation, and bigotry; more happily, tolerance and reconciliation as well.
Middle school students learn about metaphors as literary devices. By reading Zakim’s obituary they see how this bridge is a fitting metaphorical, and literal, tribute.