Teacher with ALS hopes to give students an inspiring trip

jstancill@newsobserver.comApril 18, 2014 

— Vivian Connell, like many teachers, is frantically planning an end-of-the-year excursion for her students.

But it’s no ordinary field trip. And Connell is no ordinary teacher.

She is trying to raise $20,000 online to take about 30 students to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Her students, many from immigrant and minority backgrounds, will document their feelings in journals, and they’ll paint butterflies emblazoned with the names of some of the 1.5 million children lost in the Holocaust. Their words will be published in an anthology, “Writing Wrongs: Student Voices for Justice.”

Connell teaches at Phoenix Academy, an alternative high school in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district. The trip is one item on what she says is a very short bucket list.

On March 12, Connell, 50, was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Her life expectancy is roughly three to five years, but she will leave the classroom this year, as walking becomes more difficult. The Holocaust Museum trip, she says, will be her last act as a teacher.

Connell had once been a Belfer Teaching Fellow at the museum, learning about the Holocaust in depth and crafting lessons around it. Her students, many of whom have themselves experienced intolerance, may gain something special from the trip.

The teacher will lead them, but she may have to do it in a wheelchair. That’s OK, she says.

“The power of studying the Holocaust, the power of that museum is unparalleled,” Connell said. “I’ve never encountered a more powerful teaching tool.”

In online fundraising, Connell said she wants her legacy to pronounce that education is the best hope for improving the world. “Raising our voices in the defense and promotion of our loftiest ideals,” she wrote, “is essential to genuinely be the great nation of opportunity and justice that we wish to be.”

‘Rabble rousers’

Connell was supposed to be embarking on a new career. After years of teaching high school in Charlotte-Mecklenberg schools, she enrolled in UNC’s law school in 2010. She received her degree last May, with honors, a member of the Law Review.

For as long as she can remember, she has been passionate about teaching. She counts nearly 100 former students as her Facebook friends. They keep in touch with her and tell her when something inspires them.

At Providence High School in Charlotte, Connell had started a student civic club called “Voices Activated.” The group got involved in environmental issues and studied the treatment of women in Afghanistan. “We were rabble rousers,” she said.

She began to see changes in education that she didn’t like, with more talk of market-based approaches. She wanted to do more about education than teach, she wanted to help craft policy and advocate for public schools.

“I realized that if I was ever going to model, to practice what I preached to the kids about civic involvement and engagement,” she said, “I couldn’t do it and be a full-time teacher.”

She enrolled in law school, with the thought that she would finish at age 49 and have a 20-year career in law and public policy.

It was not to be. While studying for the bar, she felt a tightness in her left calf. While dancing, her leg collapsed under her. She began what would be months of neurological testing, which led to what for many would be a devastating diagnosis.

The mother of a seventh-grade daughter and ninth-grade son is, of course, confronting the reality that she probably won’t see her children marry or meet her grandchildren. But wallowing is not in her vocabulary.

“I get to live like I’m dying,” she said in an interview. “That’s a blessing. I get to craft a legacy. I get to prepare letters and videos and emails for my children. I get to live intentionally. Most people waste so much time. We take so much for granted. So I am about finding the silver lining.”

A friend, Bert Downs, said he’s not surprised at how Connell is confronting her illness.

“The way she’s handling it, the way she’s focusing on other people ... it’s obviously a lot of strength and courage she is somehow summoning up and figuring out how to do as much good as she can,” Downs said.

Following her diagnosis, she and her husband struggled with how to tell people after initially breaking the news to family and close friends. They didn’t want to have the ALS talk dozens of times.

So one weekend, Connell wrote a Facebook post that she began, “OK. Big news; long post. (Longest. Post. Ever.)”

She said she was at peace with her diagnosis. “Help my two children know and remember their crazy mom,” she wrote. “If you have a memory or story you’d be willing to write and share, that would be the greatest gift.”

Or, she told her friends, make a donation to Duke University’s ALS Clinic. Or, she offered, support Public Schools First NC, a group that opposes recent changes in education enacted by the legislature.

Or, she suggested, make a donation for her students’ Holocaust trip.

‘I mattered’

When she left church that Sunday, she turned on her phone and was flooded with responses. Her Facebook announcement had been re-posted by Diane Ravitch, an outspoken education historian and professor at New York University, whose blog is a must-read for teachers and education policy makers. She has 83,000 Twitter followers.

Referring to Connell, Ravitch wrote about her “boldness of spirit, her determination to squeeze out of life all she can without self-pity but with courage.” She called Connell the “face of a hero.”

Connell’s new blog, referenced in her Facebook post, had nearly 3,000 hits the first day.

She was bombarded with messages of support, many from her former students.

“There’s no greater comfort, I don’t think, than to have someone say you mattered in my life,” she said. “And I’m so lucky, so lucky in this position, as I face my own mortality, to have people tell me that I mattered.”

On a recent day, she started introducing six students to the Holocaust – the Nuremberg Laws, the Jewish ghettos, the horrors of the gas chambers.

A student shakes his head, almost not believing it, just as many others refused to believe it all those years ago.

“It’s horrible,” Connell tells them. “We let it happen.”

A student raised her hand and asked if it was like Rwanda.

“That’s the fastest genocide in history,” Connell tells the student. “I’m really impressed ... that you knew that.”

Mikayla Baldwin, 16, was in Connell’s class last fall. When the students read Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” Connell created voices to bring the characters to life when they read passages in class.

“She brought in laminated newspaper articles and pictures with how many people that died,” Baldwin said. “She brought in a lot of resources to help us understand the Holocaust.”

The learning will continue. The North Carolina Foundation for Public School Children set up an online fundraising site for the Holocaust trip.

As of Friday, half the money had been raised. An angel donor has promised to write a check for the balance Monday.

Connell said she’s been stunned by the outpouring. And though she is proud of her law degree and wistful about the things she could have done with it, her final teaching act feels right.

“It’s the most important thing I ever did,” she said. “I’m kind of happy to go out as a teacher rather than a lawyer.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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