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If you don’t read this post, you will have made a great mistake. I have posted whatever Vivian Connell writes (for a couple of examples, see here, and here). Vivian is a beautiful, vivacious woman who taught high school English in North Carolina for twenty years, went to law school, became a lawyer, then learned that she has ALS. She began blogging about her life and how she was coping with ALS, which is a fatal degenerative disease. In her writings and in her life, she exemplifies dignity, courage, and grace. You will learn, if you read this post, that she is also a gifted writer who confronts life without complaint or fear as it slips away and as she loses her ability to walk, move, speak.
I met Vivian two years ago at a forum in North Carolina. She was on a panel of teachers who had left teaching or left the state to teach elsewhere; all explained why they left. The common thread was the very low salaries paid to teachers. Vivian is a passionate supporter of public education, and I was thrilled when she came to the Network for Public Education’s first conference in Austin. I was surprised when I learned from a fellow member of the board of NPE, Bertis Downs, that she is a close friend of his; it turns out that Vivian and Bertis’s wife waited tables together long ago in Athens, Georgia. Bertis told me that Vivian hopes to visit the NPE annual conference in April, when we meet in Raleigh. This is fantastic news!
In this post, Vivian describes the remarkable events that have occurred since she received her diagnosis of ALS. She can no longer write or type, so a friend transcribed this post.
She traveled extensively in the first year, knowing that she had to use every minute. She took a group of school children to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. She was invited to tell a story–her story–at a famous story-telling convening (the video is in the post). Friends held a benefit to raise money for Public Justice, where she was honored. Our mutual friend Bertis Downs organized the benefit. She has met many new friends. She has experienced the goodness of friends and strangers.
Who would have thought that a baby born to high school graduates, raised in tiny racist towns in Georgia and southern Mississippi, would end up in a progressive college community that revolutionized and expanded her thinking, generations beyond her upbringing?
Who would have thought she could spend three years living abroad, exposed to people from many countries, learning new perspectives on what it means to live on this planet, and certainly what it means to live outside her own country?
Who would have imagined the language ability she gained through this experience would lead her to a master’s degree and a 20-year career of teaching high school students?
And finally, who would have imagined that this first-generation college graduate would have been inspired by her students and teaching to leave her education career and become an attorney so that she would have the opportunity to have a voice in the public policy matters about which she was passionate?
I could not have imagined it, and I certainly could not have engineered it.
Again, I say my life has been much more blessed than cursed…..
How could I have imagined, when waiting tables in Athens, Georgia, with Katherine Downs, that I would go to law school, reconnect with Bertis, and have him connect me to Lauren, who staged the benefit gifted by Bertis that marks the culmination of fabulous events at the end of my life?
As I face my mortality.
Hell, every time I’m told about how rare my disease is, I want to laugh out loud because the events that have followed my diagnosis—the amazing connections and meetings—put the rarity of ALS to shame.
These unlikely events that have formed this magical web in my post-diagnosis life have in common a focus on justice, a belief in love, and a hunger for ideals and goodness.
These cannot cure my ALS, but they can certainly comfort and inspire.
And I would not trade them.
And these are likewise the lessons of literature—the novels we teachers choose to teach:
The Scarlet Letter, which reminds us not to judge and points to the strength of women, the importance of the heart;
The Great Gatsby, which depicts the perils of acquisitiveness and of chasing worldly success; and
Of Mice and Men, perhaps the most important in my life now, which reminds us that we can never plan for an ideal future because…things happen—ALS happens—disappointment happens, and we must learn to cope.
And of course, Plato, who writes of Socrates (as I state at the end of my Monti story), who told the Athenian senate that anyone can escape death if they are willing to say or do anything but that the real challenge in life is not to escape death but to escape unrighteousness, for unrighteousness runs faster than death.
All the people who have lifted me up, supported me, and been a part of the amazing highlights of my life since my diagnosis…well, they are my running partners. We all seek not to escape death, but to escape unrighteousness. And our hearts are indescribably full.
I hope that my message—my insistence that fighting for our highest ideals of justice and for a life of service to others—will outlive me. I speak from firsthand knowledge when I proclaim these pursuits to be the greatest comfort—and perhaps the only comfort one has—when one faces death.
And I hope that this will be part of my personal narrative, the story that I tried to write through my life…
…that these truths will be the takeaway for anyone who reads my story.
Vivian has a beautiful soul. I don’t know if she realizes it, but she is loved and admired by many who never met her. She will live forever.