How would any of us cope if we were struck by an illness so devastating that it forced us to stop doing the very thing that defined us? This is the situation David Menasche, a high school teacher in Miami, found himself in. By his own account he was an inspiring teacher, passionate about literature and even more so about young people. Then, one day, he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. This book is his story about how he coped with the condition, and his determination to continue doing the job he loved.
The early part of the book is dedicated to Menasche, talking about the role he played in his students’ wellbeing. We learn about his family, his background and reasons for entering the teaching profession, and of course his role as a teacher. The dominating theme of the book is his passion: for his students and in his belief that he can make a difference. The title of the book, The Priority List, comes from an activity Menasche used with his classes. He asked his students to apply some of life’s most important concepts to the literature they studied as a way of gaining insight into the world of their characters. Would these characters value education, independence or careers? To what extent would they prioritise creativity or family or love? Eventually he realised that by asking the students to complete the priority lists themselves, he, in turn, could gain significant insight into the issues his students were having in their own lives.
American classrooms can be presented in a very idealised way. On television it seems classes last about five minutes, and involve the teacher delivering inspirational life lessons using some great dead American poet and changing kids’ lives in the process. This book doesn’t really challenge that perception. Menasche spends a lot of time reinforcing how good a teacher he was. His lessons were never boring and he seemed to engage students in a way that other teachers and lessons didn’t.
Despite the fact I am a teacher, I found the second half of The Priority List more compelling: when Menasche loses his sight and his mobility and he has to accept that his teaching days are over. It raises the dilemma of what it means to be a teacher if you can no longer teach. Menasche embarks on a journey across America to see the Pacific Ocean before he dies. He meets up with some of the students he has taught and shares what they are doing with their lives now. The majority of the chapters finish with statements from the students on the impact Menasche had on their lives.
I am conflicted about this book. On the one hand there are aspects of Measche’s story that I find inspiring. None of us really know what we would do when faced with our own mortality, but I doubt I would have the courage to take myself as far out of my comfort zone as he did with his trip. By the time he embarked on it, he was considered legally blind, had lost most of the use of one hand and had severe mobility issues. And yet he still travelled. This gave me more insight into the author as a person.
Only, I felt that that wasn’t what most of the book was about. This side of his story could have been expanded on so much more. It is a difficult balance to find – part of Menasche’s story is the impact he has had on his students. But it felt too repetitive. The reader is constantly reminded how successful his classes were, and, after a while, the tributes at the end of each chapter just got too much. We get it – he’s a great teacher! Written in first person, it also lacks other perspectives that might have contributed to a more balanced approach. Also unfortunate is that, despite being written by a passionate teacher of English, some of book reads as if it could have been edited more thoroughly, especially to remove some of the clichés and repetition.
I felt guilty about not loving this book as much as I wanted to. I can say, though, that I am glad I read it. Menasche’s story is one that has affected me. I found myself completing my own priority list, as I am sure many people have done after reading the book. As a teacher, it has also made me reflect on my chosen profession, the way in which I teach, the way I feel about my students and whether I do enough to inspire them to fully reach their potential. And I am in awe of the way Menasche embarked on his ‘vision quest’, a journey fraught with danger and difficulty, given the circumstances. I just wanted to get a greater sense of the real “Menasche”, the complex man with frailties and faults as well as passion, rather than the ‘idealized teacher’ that the reader is presented with.