A Chapel Hill teacher presents a lesson in courage

April 21, 2014 

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Vivian Connell, a veteran teacher, went to law school in her mid-40s with the idea that she could make a difference in public policy around education, consumer protection and campaign finance reform. Recently, doctors told her she had ALS, and probably 3-5 years to live. Connell is raising money online to take her students to the Holocaust Museum in Washington - her last act as a teacher. Here she teaches the Holocaust to an English 2 class at Phoenix Academy High School in Chapel Hill on April 17, 2014.

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

Her view of one way a person measures his or her life has to do not with wealth or fame or books published or anything particularly tangible. Rather, Vivian Connell says, “There’s no greater comfort...than to have someone say you mattered in my life. And I’m so lucky, so lucky in this position, as I face my own mortality, to have people tell me that I mattered.”

The “position” of which she speaks is ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, with which this Chapel Hill high school teacher has been disagnosed. The prognosis is terminal, with most who are struck by ALS are given three to five years to live. (The disease is named for the Hall of Fame New York Yankee Lou Gehrig, who died from it.)

The News & Observer’s Jane Stancill told Connell’s story Saturday, and if ever there were a profile in courage, a personal monument to grit, Vivian Connell is it.

But before she has to leave her classroom, she has a goal typical of her devotion to teaching.

Connell is planning to take 30 of her students from Phoenix Academy in Chapel Hill, an alternative high school, to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, where the millions of Jews who perished at the hands of Nazis in World War II are memorialized.

Many of her students are from immigrant and minority backgrounds, themselves the victims of intolerance. Connell believes they may be able to draw much from the year-end field trip.

“I’ve never encountered a more powerful teaching tool,” Connell says.

Some years, even decades, from now, many of these students will say they never encountered a more powerful teacher than Vivian Connell.

If her disease progresses to the point where she’s conducting the Holocaust Museum visit in a wheelchair, so be it, she says.

Students will keep journals about the visit, and they’ll paint butterflies with the names of some of the 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust. Then, there will be an anthology, “Writing Wrongs: Student Voices for Justice.”

This will be Connell’s farewell to teaching.

It was all supposed to be so different.

After many years in the classroom, she wanted to do more in the area of social justice and public policy, so she enrolled in law school. She graduated with honors. But then came her diagnosis, so she’s doing everything she can for kids in this school.

Her own reaction to her illness is itself a “teaching moment.” Connell’s courage is inspirational to all. Many people, given the news she was given in the prime of life (she is 50) would react with understandable bitterness and despair.

But here is what Connell says: “I get to live like I’m dying. 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.”

Connell decided to let people know about her illness through Facebook, and she asked that they share their memories of her as the “greatest gift” that she could give her children, a daughter in the seventh grade and a son in the ninth.

The Holocaust Museum is a powerful memorial, of course, but the students on this trip will learn, and in fact are learning, a lot about courage and integrity and spirit and yes, love, from a remarkable, inspiring teacher who is giving them a precious gift of knowledge and a measure of grace and fortitude they’ll not likely see again in their own lives.

Some, or perhaps all, will in their years confront a crisis, perhaps a most serious one, and they’ll think about Vivian Connell and that will inspire them to carry on. Because she matters.

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