The Mixture of Life: A Tribute to Dave Russell

It’s been six days since I’ve put keyboard to blog, and it feels real good to be back.

I know I’ve written before about feeling like I am in the middle of life.

I’ve been relishing Aidan’s increasing moves toward independence.  In the past three weeks, he’s attended his prom, gone to freshman orientation at Tulane, graduated and had a memorable road trip to Bonnaroo, a four-day music festival in Tennessee from which he thankfully returned. At the same time, I’ve been feeling the pain of my mother-in-law starting radiation treatment to deal with an inoperable brain tumor.

Yet events in recent days have reminded me anew that we actually have no idea how long we will live, and thus really do not know which stage of life we are in, other than what doctor or author Spencer Johnson calls the precious present.

To wit:

A childhood friend shared with me this morning that his wife, who is in the first half of her 40s, has had Parkinson’s Disease for the past two years.

I spoke tonight with a friend who is in her 50s and looking to get round-the-clock help for her 92-year-old mother.

And dear friend, dedicated teacher and personal hero Dave Russell had his own brush with mortality after encountering some heart difficulty.

All apparently went with Dave’s angioplasty and the insertion of a stent – it sounds like he should be able to travel to see one of his daughters in Chile in two short weeks – and a trip to the emergency room that results in learning about extensive blockage is hardly reassuring stuff.

I don’t want just to explain Dave’s medical condition, but rather to take some time and space to write about this extraordinary man who has been both mentor and friend to me during the 20 years since we first met on a chilly winter morning while waiting for the ferry to take us to Boston Harbor’s Thompson Island.

The son of a school superintendent in Gardner, Dave is one of, I believe, eight siblings.   A fine student and athlete, he graduated from Amherst College in the late 70s.  Many of his classmates went on to pursue and achieve financial success in fields like medicine and law.

Dave could have done that, too.

Instead, he became a union organizer at Massachusetts General Hospital for eight years, tenaciously pursuing his goal of helping the workers there gain collective bargaining rights.

Again, after that campaign ended without the final victory he had sought, he had a choice.

He moved into education.

Urban education, to be specific.

After getting his teaching credential and working in a few different settings, Dave got hired at the McKinley School in Boston’s South End in 1986.

He’s still there.

McKinley, for those who do not know, is a specifically-designated special education school in Boston’s South End neighborhood.

On Thompson Island, where Dave and I first worked together and began our friendship, the students were part of a multi-agency program.  Our goal was to get them into good enough shape so that they could take the ferry to the mainland to attend the “regular” Special Education school in the South End.

Our students were living on the island after having been removed from their homes due to some combination of physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

They also were in the throes of adolescence, and, in many cases, profoundly learning disabled.

Sometimes, when I would get frustrated with the students’ behavior and my inability to get them to respond to my instruction, I would read their files.

They made me weep.

One girl did not know when she was born.

Another had been prostituted by her mother.

One boy had lost both parents to AIDS and had a fierce love for his younger brother.

Another waited in vain over and over again for his mother to pick him up and take him home for the weekend, as she had promised.

She rarely did.

Needless to say, the work was enormously challenging.

But Dave never gave up then, and he hasn’t done so since.

He keeps bringing the same tireless efforts toward his students’ academic and personal growth he had when he first arrived a quarter century ago

Yet in some ways the true measure of Dave’s commitment can be found is the continual deepening of his teaching practice.

Dave’s attended dozens of workshops in topics ranging from science to reading to history.  He’s lead writing seminars for teachers for years.

He takes annual trips with his students to college campuses because he wants them to know he believes they can and will get there.  We’re not just talking about Roxbury Community College, even though that is one regular stop on the college tour circuit.  Dave and his students go to Harvard Yard, too.

He’s expanded his students’ horizons by traveling to Africa and setting up communication between his charges and the young people in Ghana he’s met.

In short, he’s dedicated his considerable energy, talent and heart throughout his adult life in the service of his noble ideals of working to show some of Boston’s most disenfranchised young people that they are witnessed, that they are cherished, and that they can succeed.

It’s grueling work that can often be demoralizing.

Dave knows all too well the grim numbers about the dark fates that come to so many of his students, many of whom have ended up in prison or dead.

He has kept going and going, training a generation of teachers in his classroom and modeling teaching excellence for his colleagues throughout the building.

Now this jolting news.

I hope and believe what the doctors have told Dave is true.

Still, his health scare has been yet another reminder to me to savor the moments that make up a life, not because we know ours will eventually end, but because each day possesses many gifts and richness within it if we are open to receiving them.

6 responses to “The Mixture of Life: A Tribute to Dave Russell

  1. David Russell

    Oh my goodness, Jeff! I didn’t expect to wake up to this. Thank you so much. I hope I am deserving of your words. I believe I have done the best I can, and I feel fortunate to have found work where I can consistently feel I am pushing the Sisyphusian rock in the right direction. It never feels like it is going downhill, but it is exhilarating when there is movement. A large part of endurance in the job is calibrating ones sights to take note of and be heartened by what to others might seem minor vibrations. And we must keep the dream alive, articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr., and pursued by countless others over time and throughout the globe, that some day we will reach the mountain top. I been buoyed also by wonderful family, colleagues, and friends. Also, through the efforts of the Boston Teachers Union, of which I am a building representative, I earn decent salary and benefits.

    On Monday when the doctor showed me a picture of my heart blockage–sometimes called a “widow maker”–I was scared. Will this be the end of my life? I don’t want to die now. And, I thought, I don’t want to be the subject of a Jeff Lowenstein obituary, as moving as those tributes have been for the numerous people who have unfortunately become available for such writing. Ha! I like this post much better! May we all have long lives, and, in any, case, make the best use of the time that we have, whose terminus we can never know in advance.

    Thank you again, and love and best wishes to you always.

  2. Jeff – what a great entry about Dave! Thank you so much for writing it – such a full picture of with heart and soul. Thank you.

  3. Jeff, a beautiful post. I want to remember to read your blog more often! Dad, you are every bit deserving of all this praise. I am proud of you and proud to be of you. And I can’t wait to see you here in a few weeks!

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