Vivian Connell once said she left teaching because she didn’t have a voice. “No one listens to teachers,” she said.
In mid-career, she went off to law school at UNC. But she never could quite leave teaching, and her voice became impossible to ignore.
The teacher-turned-activist died Monday at age 52, silenced by ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She is survived by husband Paul Connell, son Hagan, 17, daughter Hadley, 14, and her parents, Joye and Malcolm Riner of Chapel Hill.
Connell first came into the public eye in 2014 when, as a teacher at Phoenix Academy, an alternative high school in Chapel Hill, she began raising money online for a field trip to Washington for her 30 mostly low-income students. It was one item on her very short bucket list, she said.
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The trip garnered media coverage and the fundraiser brought in more than $15,000. Connell took her students to Washington, where they received private tours and red carpet treatment at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Archives. By the time it was time to board the bus to Washington, Connell was using a walker and a wheelchair, but it didn’t faze her.
Just before the journey, when asked about her recent diagnosis with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, she was at peace.
“I get to live like I’m dying,” she told The News & Observer. “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.”
She would document her life, its ups and downs, on a blog humorously titled “finALS. My closing arguments.” She last posted there on June 25.
She described the kindnesses that had come her way during her illness. Friends had presented her with a signed copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and given her family tickets to “Hamilton” on Broadway. “My husband wept because I couldn’t go,” she wrote. “I bawled like a baby because they could.”
Connell also wrote about her regrets, including the time when she was in high school in Georgia and a friend made a joke using the N-word. She didn’t speak up or get out of the car, and the incident haunted her. “I still burn with shame at the memory,” she wrote.
But she spoke up about many issues – civil rights, economic disparity and what she saw as a devastating lack of support for teachers. As a teacher in Charlotte, she had started a club called “Voices Activated,” in which students got involved in everything from environmental issues to the treatment of women in Afghanistan. “We were rabblerousers,” she said.
Mark Weidemaier, a UNC law professor who taught Connell, called her “a force of nature.”
“It’s rare to meet somebody who has such firm and well-formed opinions and who can express them in a way that invites engagement rather than argument,” Weidemaier said. “She was really that way, and you saw that manifest itself in many different parts of her life.”
Another UNC law professor and family friend, Melissa Jacoby, said Connell made a big impact at the law school, where she wrote for the Law Review. She was known for making passionate arguments about racial justice, consumer protection and other issues she cared about. She kept talking about those things even after she became ill.
“Vivian was such a role model when she was diagnosed,” Jacoby said. “She stayed so strong and so focused on what she could do with her time here, and I think, really sets an example for the rest of us.”
Connell became a panelist at education conferences. In 2014, she appeared in a TV ad opposing Republican Thom Tillis during his campaign for the U.S. Senate. It was funded by the nation’s largest teachers union. She was also active in Public Schools First NC, a group that promoted progressive policies in education.
Diane Ravitch, a nationally known education blogger and historian at New York University, became a friend after she shared a 2014 Facebook post written by Connell about her diagnosis. Ravitch has 132,000 Twitter followers, many of them teachers, who kicked in money for Connell’s epic field trip.
On Monday, Ravitch posted news of Connell’s death: “Sorrow for the world to lose such a beautiful person.”
When Connell returned from that Washington trip, she blogged about the students’ experience, which she called “immeasurable.”
“During my two decades of teaching, I was accused of lacking personal ambition,” she wrote. “On the contrary: I had a different kind of ambition – ambition based on my own concepts of power, influence, and success.”
After all the publicity about her quest, she wrote, “It turned out, thankfully, to be not really about me at all, and that was my goal – to name inequities, to elevate tolerance, and to empower these students.”
A celebration of Connell’s life will be held Sept. 10 at 1 p.m. at United Church of Chapel Hill. http://unitedchurch.org. In lieu of flowers, donations are encouraged to Public Justice at http://www.publicjustice.net/support-us/donate/
Shortly after her diagnosis, Connell wrote a post called “Gifts” about her trip with her students to the Holocaust museum in Washington. Here’s an excerpt, in which she writes about what she’s thankful for:
“But here is a sampling scatterplot of blessings:
“. . . clean water, two loving parents who made sacrifices to advance my happiness and opportunity, a solid-to-excellent public school education, a decent mind, three university degrees, a body that was almost perfectly healthy for 50 years, chances to travel and live abroad and learn other languages, the chance to experience my grandparents’ farm with a roto-dial phone (a party line, no less) and black and white television that only received two channels, a fairly innocent small-town childhood, the richness of life in two amazing college towns (Athens in the REM era and Chapel Hill in the Moral Monday era), swimming in the phosphorescent waters of Thailand, visiting the Uffizi, Cezanne’s Aix, and L’Orangerie, never being hungry, always having sufficient medical care, wonderful pets, wonderful friends, wonderful family, and especially the wonder of growing two new humans and nursing them and loving them through their childhoods. I survived the Cold War and witnessed first the hatred of people who looked liked me toward those who don’t during integration in Mississippi, and then, though I still see that hatred in much more muted and insidious form, I saw President Obama elected.
“I will be ‘a tar heel dead,’ and that makes me Happy.”