The Priority List: A Teacher's Final Quest to Discover Life's Greatest Lessons
A teacher learns lessons in acceptance, independence, respect and travel as he makes a pilgrimage towards death. In 2006, David Menasche was a high school English teacher living in Florida, married to a fellow teacher and in the prime of his career, when he learned that he had a cancerous brain tumor. His reaction to this challenge makes an inspiring memoir that, remarkably, he was able to pen after more than three months of travel to 11 states across America to prove that, as he often repeats, “Hey, I’ve got this,” a mantra that reminds him, and others, that he can deal with his highly unusual circumstances.
Initially it wasn’t so easy. The news at first felt as tragic for Menasche as it would for anyone. He spent seven tough years letting medical science do its work, with radiation, MRIs, seizure meds, and a gradual breakdown of body systems that showed his brain just wasn’t doing its job. He lost much of his sight, and became clumsy and half-crippled. He was nauseous much of the time. Still, he kept reaching and motivating his students, who were well aware of his increasing disablement and impressed with his courage.
"...[a] poignant story, which would not have been feasible were it not for Menasche’s strong personality and ever-renewing sense of purpose --- and, it must be said, his sense of humor..."
Menasche finally, reluctantly, quit his job. In 2012, feeling he had reached the end of his string and no longer wishing to try any further therapies, he devised his own "treatment plan" based on a list of priorities for his remaining time. He would visit former students, wherever that took him and however difficult it might be. Through cyber contacts and fundraising, he was able to set out with a backpack and a cane, moving mostly by bus and train, and meet with people whose lives he had touched, who respected him and were willing to repay him with a few hours or days of their time.
That remarkable journey forms the bulk of this poignant story, which would not have been feasible were it not for Menasche’s strong personality and ever-renewing sense of purpose --- and, it must be said, his sense of humor, sometimes self-deprecating (forced to hitchhike at one point, he moans, “Can you imagine how insulting it is to be limping with a cane, with your thumb out, and nobody stops?”). His travels cost him his marriage, independent living became a necessity he hadn’t bargained for, and dependence followed as his body continued to feel the strains of his illness. Still, he has no complaints; he just feels “blessed.”
Menasche works as an Ambassador for Voices Against Brain Cancer and lives with friends in New Orleans. Many of the book’s chapters end with moving testimonials from many of the students about whom he writes, young people whose lives were changed by his unique, inventive, personal approach to teaching. “You continue to teach, inspire and encourage me.” “Menasche is not only looking into the darkness, but also walking through it, into the unknown.” “Hundreds walk with you daily.” “He wasn’t going to let illness get in the way of his students’ growth.” “Thank you, Menasche, for insisting…for planting that seed…”
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on January 17, 2014