Jerry Parr

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One of my favorite lessons is to put students in Jerry Parr’s shoes. He was the Secret Service agent who had to make a life-or-death decision for President Ronald Reagan.

We read “The Day Reagan Was Shot” from the Wall Street Journal, stopping at the last sentence below:

Parr spun quickly through his options, wondering whether they should return to the White House or head straight to the nearest hospital. But what if the assassination attempt was part of a coordinated attack? What if there were other assassins out there? In that case, the White House was the safest place on earth, and that was where he should go. Besides, if he decided to take the president to a hospital and he hadn’t been seriously injured, the visit might unnecessarily panic the country or trigger a financial crisis. Moreover, the hospital wouldn’t be guarded, so he would be putting the president at great risk, especially if co-conspirators were lurking there, waiting, if need be, to finish the job. 

Still, what if Reagan was badly injured? Going to the White House could be disastrous; they’d be much better off at the nearest trauma center, in this case the one at George Washington University Hospital.

Parr weighed the two options. Neither seemed particularly good.

 

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A dilemma, I explain to students, is when you have two bad choices. The trick is to decide which one is less bad. So before finishing the article, we complete this exercise: students list the pros and cons of each option, make their decisions, and write persuasive essays to Agent Parr.

Agent Parr didn’t have time for contemplation. His agile mind, however, made the right call, and his heroism provides a lesson in how to make decisions under intense stress.

His obituary can be found in the New York Timesthe Washington Postthe Los Angeles Times, and via the Associated Press.

 

 

Leila Alaoui

 

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“She was fighting to give life to those forgotten by society, to homeless people, to migrants, deploying one weapon: photography.”

 

Years ago I spent many pleasant weeks in the capital of Burkina Faso, and have fond memories of the place. Last month’s terrorist attack there was all the more distressing because it took the life of a gifted photographer.

Leila Alaoui’s obituary gave us not only a geography lesson, but the opportunity to discuss the role of photography in human rights. (It also – I’m sure she’ll forgive us – gave us some fun saying Ouagadougou.)

The obituary’s opening sentence describes Ms. Alaoui’s work as hauntingly beautiful. In her honor, I gave students a homework assignment with neither due date nor grade: to take a photograph whose beauty is haunting.

 

 

Challenger Crew

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“They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.”

 

Gym class came to a halt when a kid ran in and shouted: “The Space Shuttle exploded!”

I was a middle school student then, I’m a middle school teacher now. To honor the Challenger crew we read the transcript of the president’s speech on the evening of the tragedy.

 

 

We also watch this short film about one of the astronauts, Ronald McNair.

 

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I teach about the Challenger each year in a two-part lesson on how small causes can have large effects. “The first story is not a happy one,” I warn the students, and we learn the consequences of low temperatures on O-rings.

The second story, however, is joyous: “The Doughnuts,” by Robert McCloskey, the tale of a mechanical malfunction’s several benefits. I like to think the Challenger crew – especially the teacher – would approve.

 

Donuts

 

Kevin White

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“Martin Luther King loved this city, and it’s up to our generation to prove his faith in us.”

 

Kevin White’s obituary provides a short course in local history. His tenure (1968-1984) saw the development of, for example, Quincy Market.

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It also included one of Boston’s most painful episodes, the busing crisis.

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With the holiday Monday, we discussed Martin Luther King’s connection to Boston, as well as how, and why, our classroom would have looked differently before the city’s desegregation of schools.

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And then we watched the beginning of the concert below. Now known as “the night James Brown saved Boston,” it features a short speech by Mayor White, four months into the job.

 

We only had time for the first two songs, alas. I don’t think any of the students had seen James Brown perform before; most didn’t recognize his name (although everyone knew “I Feel Good”). Teacher pro tip: if you want your kids to leave class in a better mood, end with a James Brown gig.

 

 

The Saint of the South End

Eustace Caggiano

 

“She always was purposeful. She always knew what she was doing and why she was doing it. She sometimes lived among criminals and alcoholics and drug addicts and people who were mentally ill, and nothing rattled her cage. No one who knew her will ever say they saw her angry or frustrated.”

When Sister Eustace spoke out, it was to defend those attacked by others. She might wade into a fight between teenagers on a sidewalk to quell the violence, or raise her voice if anyone criticized the presence of immigrants. Pointing out that her mother was born in Italy, “I say: ‘Where did your grandmother come from?’  ” she told the Globe in 1992.

 

Sister Eustace’s obituary gave us the opportunity to write about how we could be purposeful in our lives.

We learned from it the following vocabulary: sanctuary, renowned, sensitivity, fanfare, quell, and aura.

(We also had some fun discussing what it means to “rattle one’s cage,” and shared what rattled ours. Judging by the responses, we’ve not – not yet, anyway – achieved Sister Eustace’s serene temperament.)

 

Kim Annette Shepherd-Garcia

 

Each year before winter break, my students and I read “The Gift of the Magi.”

This year we read it along with the recent obituary of Kim Annette Shepherd-Garcia, a Philadelphia hairdresser.

 

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Both texts share a tonsorial theme, but more importantly, both are heartwarming accounts of marital devotion. Jim and Della would have understood the following:

When Kim was stricken with multiple sclerosis and years of slow decline followed, [her husband] Greg was there every day to care for her. He had a simple explanation for why he did it: “I loved her.”

 

Each text also includes examples of quid pro quo, a term we learned from her obituary:

Kim also taught [her husband] Greg how to work in her beauty salon… Greg taught Kim how to drive, and she got her driver’s license.

One student pointed out that Ms. Shepherd-Garcia must have been a canny practitioner of quid pro quo, obtaining Greg’s help in exchange for his help!

 

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Olene Walker

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“That I was kind and caring and somewhat intelligent. That I was willing to listen. And that I was not only willing to talk, but I was willing to do. That I worked my best to improve conditions for everyone in the state.”

 

David Brooks talks of “eulogy virtues,” what’s talked about at your funeral, as opposed to “resume virtues,” what’s talked about in your job interview.

Olene Walker’s Salt Lake Tribune obituary gave us the opportunity to discuss what we’d like people to say about us 100 years from now.

Her obituary taught us affablefortitudepersona, and discombobulation. We also learned from it why flags are flown at half-staff, and what it means to clean someone’s clock.

 

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Brian Jacques

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Three reasons we read three obituaries for children’s author Brian Jacques:

  1. To meet Common Core State Standard RI.6.9: “Compare and contrast one author’s presentation of events with that of another (e.g., a memoir written by and a biography on the same person).”
  2. Mr. Jacques lived about three obits’ worth.
  3. I couldn’t decide which I liked best:

The Telegraph

Aged 10, he was told to write a story about animals and turned in a tale about a bird that cleaned a crocodile’s teeth. His teacher refused to believe that a boy so young could write so imaginatively and caned Brian when he insisted he had not copied it.

Washington Post

Mr. Jacques (pronounced “Jakes”), who grew up near the docks of Liverpool, left school at 15 and found work as a merchant mariner. He later worked as a railway fireman, long-haul trucker, bus driver, postmaster, longshoreman, police constable and stand-up comic.

New York Times

On his route was the Royal School for the Blind. Invited in for a nice cup of tea one day, he volunteered to read to the students. Over time, he grew dissatisfied with the books available — too much adolescent angst, he later said — and vowed to write his own.

Nohemi Gonzalez

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Nohemi Gonzalez was murdered in the 2015 massacres in Paris.

The only daughter of an immigrant mother, Nohemi pursued her studies in industrial design, worked as a teaching assistant and shop technician, and held a job at an Armani Exchange. Her professor called her “an absolute delight.”

Reading about Ms. Gonzalez introduced our 6th graders to one of higher education’s best features, the opportunity to study abroad.

After reading this lovely profile, students shared where they’d like to go: Spain and France ranked high, as did Ireland; other destinations included Hong Kong, the Dominican Republic, and Greece.

 

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Most of the obituaries we read each week are not heartbreaking; this one was. Rest in peace, Nohemi. May your life be an inspiration.

 

Betty Hart

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“People kept thinking, ‘Oh, we can catch kids up later,’ and her big message was to start young and make sure the environment for young children is really rich in language.”

 

Betty Hart is one of my heroes. Thanks to her, we know this:

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It is an unhappy fact that you can fairly accurately predict whether kids will graduate from high school by looking at their third grade reading scores. As Robert Pondiscio says:

I can think of no more urgent priority for K–12 education than getting as many children as possible to the starting line as readers by third grade. If that’s not a make-or-break issue for kids, it’s damn close.

Teaching vocabulary* is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job, so I’d do it anyway, but it’s because of Ms. Hart’s work that I do it with such urgency. And I bet she’d be pleased that her own obituary provides such a splendid array. The words we learned were: disparity, deficit, prevalent, transcribewelfare, cumulative, touchstone, and jargon.

She’d also be delighted that one student, studying the chart, asked (unprompted) this astute question: “But what if poor parents talked to their kids more [than wealthy parents]?”** The title of a recent Washington Post article sums it up: “The most powerful thing we could give poor kids is completely free.”

In her honor, each student selected one of the above vocabulary words and created a (jargon-free) poster that could explain its meaning to a child.

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*Shop talk: Bringing Words to Life taught me how to teach vocabulary. If my teaching bookshelf were on fire, that’s the book I’d grab.

**This led to a good discussion about averages, in which I emphasized that one could not conclude from the chart what all poor, working-class, or rich families do. In the course of this digression, we determined by how much my presence in the classroom raised its average age (noticeably), and we talked about how a visit from LeBron James would raise our average dunking skill and wealth.

 

Ruth Batson

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“She always gave back to the community, quietly and effectively.”

 

I asked my students this question: “What do people who live elsewhere think of when they think of Boston?”

Responses included the city’s distinctive accent, Revolutionary War history, and strong sports culture.

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When I asked if there were any negative associations, however, the only suggestion – to our great amusement – was “dirty water.” Boston’s former notoriety for racial division was unknown.

 

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In fairness, I didn’t know about it either when I was a 6th grader.

Moreover, that painful history wouldn’t be obvious from looking at the students, who look a lot like the city. Our classroom’s diversity is a tribute to the work of Ruth Batson, whose Boston Globe obituary we read together.

 

 

 

John F. Baker, Jr.

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“In all, Sgt. Baker was credited with recovering eight fallen U.S. soldiers, destroying six bunkers and killing at least 10 enemies.”

 

When Sergeant John F. Baker, Jr. received the Medal of Honor, President Lyndon Johnson remarked that he and his fellow recipient, a former West Point basketball player, looked like Mutt and Jeff:

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It probably wasn’t the first joke Sergeant Baker ever heard about his height. But the real joke was on the Marines, who had refused him for being an inch too short.

Baker’s heroism extended beyond one terrible day in 1966. For the remainder of his tour he scouted Viet Cong tunnels, and, after receiving his Medal of Honor, sought to return to combat duty. Although his requests were denied, Baker devoted the rest of his life, both in and out of uniform, to serving fellow soldiers and veterans.

His obituary, from the Washington Post, gave us the opportunity to learn about different medals and ranks, as well as the military’s custom of saluting Medal of Honor recipients first.

Sergeant Baker’s obituary also taught us the following vocabulary: diminutive, disparate, mortally, evacuate, valor, indomitable, and gallantry.

Sergeant Baker’s father was a trapeze artist. Oddly enough, so was the father of the mathematical genius whose obituary we read last week.

 

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Shakuntala Devi

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My instruction has, I’d like to think, a reasonable degree of academic rigor. If pressed, however, I might concede that it’s not daily I transport students to the boundaries of human mental ability. Shakuntala Devi’s Telegraph obituary gives us a glimpse.

Known as “the human computer,” she could, upon hearing your date of birth, tell you its day. In about the time it takes to fish out your phone and find the right app, she mentally calculated 7,686,369,774,870  x  2,465,099,745,779.

Ms. Devi, for whom the term “gifted” seems dissatisfyingly insufficient, had no conventional schooling, and attributed her powers to divine endowment. Still, she sought to share what she could: “I cannot transfer my abilities to anyone, but I can think of quicker ways with which to help people develop numerical aptitude.”

Her obituary taught us the vocabulary prodigy, prowess, aptitudeinnate, and cognitive. 

To explain what a cognitive meant, I showed them the test below, allowing that I hadn’t yet figured out the solution. Most students got it very quickly, thereby offering a glimpse of their mental abilities, and mine.

 

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Grace Cyr

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Grace Cyr was a foster mother to 98 children.

According to her Boston Globe obituary,

Ms. Cyr often cared for multiple children, including many with complicated medical needs. They joined whoever of Ms. Cyr’s daughters were living at home, along with grandchildren. For a time, she fostered three children under age 6, all of whom required wheelchairs.

Ms. Cyr, a stylish dresser, kept her chandeliers sparkling and was “never boring, ever.” A lovely 2010 profile contains this example of her ingenuity and devotion:

A boy born without a brain stem could neither speak nor see. Grace put his bassinet near her grandfather clock, whose ticking seemed to soothe him, and took care of him until he died.

 

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She couldn’t get everything right, though:

Grace still laughs at the story of sending one of her foster sons to school on St. Patrick’s Day. She had dressed him in green and carefully packed his lunch for the occasion, including green Jell-O and a green can of ginger ale. Then she got a call from his teacher… Mistakenly, Grace had thrown in a can of Heineken instead of Canada Dry.

 

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Vo Phien

 

“What he created – it’s incredible and valuable.”

 

I put this unhappy question to my students: “If you could take only a handful of books to start a new library in a new country, which would you choose?”

To give them some historical perspective, we read brief accounts of the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, and of the fall of Saigon.

Then we learned about Vo Phien, who worked to save his country’s literary heritage. As his Los Angeles Times obituary describes, he began his mission in the final days of the Vietnam War:

Fearful of what to come, he resolved to collect and preserve literary treasures, essays that had appeared in newspapers and magazines, books that might soon be banned, even diaries…

His success in doing so is all the more remarkable because for years this was his side gig: by day he was a benefits specialist for the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Association.

Crunching numbers (which he did “with such speed”) was among the vocabulary Vo Phien’s obituary taught us, along with bannedscourrefugeementorprolificdiaspora, and expatriate.

Also, since Vo Phien was his pen name, we all invented ours. (My favorite was Liam Lemon Lime.)

And the books students were most likely to preserve? The Harry Potter series made many lists, as did the Divergent trilogy, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, and The Fault in Our Stars. The Day the Crayons Quit also appeared more than once.

 

 

Augusta Chiwy

Augusta_Chiwy“I would have done it for anyone. We are all children of God.”

 

Christmas of 1944 was memorable for Augusta Chiwy because her visit to Bastogne, Belgium coincided with an attack by 200,000 German soldiers.

This would have troubled anyone’s holiday, especially someone’s whose mother was from Central Africa. But this did not stop Ms. Chiwy, a nurse, from heroically tending wounded Americans during the Battle of the Bulge.

As her Washington Post obituary recounts, not all patients shared her grace:

One man… suffered from severe frostbite and asked [U.S. Army physician Dr. Jack] Prior not to allow the black nurse to touch him.

“Fine,” Prior replied… “Die, then.”

 

Ms. Chiwy’s extraordinary service was almost lost to legend until it received recognition late in her life. The commander of the 101st Airborne Division’s “Bastogne Brigade” told her in 2011:

Ma’am, you embody what is best and most kind in all of us… There are men and women in America who would never have a father or grandfather if you hadn’t been there to provide them basic medical care.

 

After their first Christmas together, she and Dr. Prior would regularly exchange Yuletide greetings, with which Ms. Chiwy would include Belgian chocolates.

 

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Esther Earl

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“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 – myself included – usually don’t bother to notice them.

Sharing the dedications with each other, we found two commonalities:

  1. Whether clear or cryptic, simple or elaborate, earnest or irreverent, each dedication was heartfelt.
  2. We didn’t know any of the dedicatees.

 

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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 pick (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 Camayd-Freixas

 

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“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.

 

 

Mary-Margaret Almonte

 

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“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 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.

 

Brother Blue

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[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.