Thursday, October 20, 2011

Things I Love Thursday: The Legacy of Ali McKenna

This post is not about food, but it is about writing and things that I love and that are important. Over the past weekend one of my favorite teachers from high school passed. She was only 42. News of her death came the same day I started my first librarian position. The two are linked. Ali was instrumental in my development as a student and a writer. I would not be a librarian today if not for her and this food blog would not be what it is if not for her.

Ali taught my freshman advanced English and my junior advanced American Lit. Over the course of high school, she became more than just my teacher. She was an adult I could trust, someone who treated me like more than just a teenager, who encouraged me to always try harder and to do more. She was a mentor and was adored by me and my family. When my dad was running his bagel business, he gave me many bagels to give to her. Whenever my folks came back from parent-teacher conferences, they always remarked on the conversations they had with Ali.

One thing that made her such a dynamic teacher and popular with many students was the way she taught. She was tough, but the reward of doing well was always worth it. She pushed us further. We were required to say why we thought the things we did and gave the opinions we gave, no matter what they were, so we could develop our own philosophies. Learning how to reason is crucial to being both a student and a lifelong learner. At the end of the semesters, she would not just tell us our grade, but give us a note on how we were doing in our learning beyond letter grades. Though English was always my favorite subject and was something that I excelled in, getting these notes was more important than the A grade at the bottom. I felt respected. I felt understood in a time when I was feeling confused about everything.

During my junior year, a classmate of mine died in an accident. He was a friend of friends and we didn’t like each other and his passing made me feel strange. Ali had us write out what we were feeling, to help us understand our own grieving process and our emotions. Writing was a passion of hers and she had us do it in so many forms and so many ways. I hope her students past and present are using writing to help them deal with this grief.

In my own long winded way, this is my Things I Love Thursday list of some of my favorite memories and moments from my time at JDHS with Ali. This is my way of coping.
  • Freshman year we watched Romeo & Juliet, both the 1960s version and the Baz Luhrmann one. During the 60s film, in the balcony scene that seemed to go on forever, Ali shouted out “Just kiss her on the mouth already so she’ll shut up!”
  • Anytime anyone insulted anyone else in class, we had to give them three times as many put-ups as put-downs and they couldn’t be lame. “He’s nice” didn’t pass muster.
  • While learning how to debate issues, one of my classmates said “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” I was appalled, but before anyone else could say anything, she said “That’s not an argument. That’s just stupid.”
  • Junior year we did a huge decades project. Each group got a decade from the 20th century and we had to do a skit and teach our class about American life. How many kids get to wear mini dresses and dance around in their class saying things like “have you heard about this new pill thing? Yeah, you take it and can have as much sex as you want without getting pregnant” while another classmate pretended to be a philandering LBJ in a closet. We also had our classmates do a mock protest and we got to go outside to burn a bra. Yes, I know women didn’t actually burn their bras, but we got to do it anyway. And Ali hung it up and kept it in her classroom for the rest of the year.
  • When discussing some issue or another junior year, a classmate of mine said “This sucks.” She asked him if he could try to describe it in a way that wasn’t a reference to oral sex. His response? “This blows.” Hers? “Try again.”
  • Learning what a metaphor is because of “life is a highway”
  • Forcing me freshman year to write a story where no one died (I was reading a lot of RL Stine and Christopher Pike at the time). It turned out to be one of my best pieces of work that year. She then asked me if she could publish it in a student section of the local paper.
  • The best discussions about The Grapes of Wrath. I fell in love with Steinbeck that year.
  • Reading canon and beat and modern works
  • Asking me to always try and try and try again. If I didn’t get it, to keep trying.
Thank you Ali for being my teacher. The lessons from my time with you will continue to teach me as a learner, an instructor, and a person.

For any of my readers who knew her and don’t already know about this, there is a blog set up for us to send in our memories and thoughts about Ali that will be turned into a book for her children. I haven’t posted there yet, but I will.

Thank you for indulging me in this. I’ll return with food stuff soon.


Amy Marie said...

Thanks Becca. This is really beautiful.

Katie B. said...

Thanks for sharing these memories Becca. Sounds like Ali was a lifelong inspiration for students like you.

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