Vivian Connell, a teacher turned education lawyer, died this week after a long struggle with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. I met Vivian just once, but it was an encounter I have not forgotten. She was one of 6 teachers on that a panel I moderated in North Carolina in February, 2014, on the subject of teachers leaving the profession. Before the session, I explained the ground rules: no opening remarks, all Q&A, and no off-topic speeches. Vivian immediately piped up. “I tend to get carried away,” she said, “because I feel passionately about what North Carolina and the Obama Administration are doing to public education.” If that happens, I said, I will interrupt, but I will be nice about it.
Well, as she warned me, she did get carried away a couple of times. As promised, I interrupted (nicely, I think). But if you listen to what she has to say about the increasing lack of trust of teachers, the Administration’s embrace of ‘Test and punish’ strategies, and the system’s over-reliance on test scores, you will begin to understand her strength of character, passion and commitment. She told the audience that she came to believe that her chosen profession was being denigrated by powerful forces bent on destroying public schools, and so she went to UNC Law, graduated with honors, and was admitted to the bar at age 49. She declined a clerkship opportunity in order to spend her energy advocating for public education.
I thought to myself how lucky public education was that Vivian took the leap. Yes, a school lost a terrific teacher, but the public interest was much better served by Vivian’s being an education lawyer.
(The audience clearly understood. The crowd of about 800-900 people gave Vivian and her five colleagues a standing ovation at the end of the panel. How often does a panel get a standing O? Maybe just that one time!)
Life is unfair. A month later, Vivian went to her doctor to find out why one leg was giving her trouble. She wrote about it on her blog: On March 12th, 2014, I learned that I have ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and that over the next 2-10 years – most likely 3-5 years – my motor neurons will gradually stop working and I will lose the use of my limbs, then become unable to breathe and swallow, and then cease to be. (That’s an excerpt; please read the entire post.)
Vivian never asked for sympathy, just that we do the right thing.
As my students have heard me say, regardless of what we each believe about our ability to “Change the World,” we all DO change it: we each make it a little better or a little worse. I have tried to live with a determination to be on the right side of history and, when I could muster the strength, the generous side of kindness. I certainly have won some and lost some – I am not the gentlest or most patient soul – but I hope I have made the world a bit better, and I have a very short bucket list. I wish you all the courage to aspire to your highest ideals and the blessing of facing the end of your days with as few regrets as I have.
And as she said elsewhere, “People have said that I’m inspirational, but it’s not me. It’s inspiring that we live in a democracy that invites our participation.”
Here is Vivian’s final post.
The indefatigable Diane Ravitch has paid tribute to Vivian a number of times and will, I know, continue to see that her good works are not forgotten.
My deepest sympathy to Vivian’s husband and children and to her many friends and colleagues.