Dan Meyer tweeted about professional influences. There are any number of people in my life deserving of public tribute — dozens if not hundreds of amazing educators to which I owe a great deal for all I have learned! Today, however, I want to write about Jeni.
Jeni is one of the rare people on the blog that is not going to get a pseudonym. Jeni is Jeni is Jeni. (Everyone else here will get pseudonyms.)
Jeni, Megan, Tonya, and I shared a classroom in the basement of the school. Our room served as a meeting place for small groups of all sorts: math, literacy, and affinity groups of students of color. To get to my space towards the back, I snaked through a maze of pocket charts and bookshelves loaded with bins of Leveled Literacy Intervention readers. It was crowded, and cozy. We became thick as thieves.
We shared a single phone, affixed to the wall next to the door. When it rang, Megan, whose had the nearest working space, would cheerfully answer: “hello, you’ve reached the Crib.” We had a collective identity. This is that “in the trenches” mentality educators talk about.
In what was a challenging year for me, the ladies from the Crib kept me tethered. Megan was energetic and quick-witted. Her literacy groups were master classes in pacing and engagement, and, when it came to literacy, Megan Knew Her Stuff. Tonya was wry and world-weary, but offered a maternal grounding. All of the compliments we received for hosting impressive faculty breakfasts needed to be immediately redirected to Tonya.
And then there was Jeni.
When I first met Jeni, I thought she was a spitfire. Soon, I realized that her sarcastic Boston exterior masked her sentimental Southern girl side. Her insides? All marshmallow.
Jeni was a brilliant educator. She had some prestigious credentials, including a doctorate in literacy from a top program, and letters of recommendation from Big Names (Richard Allington!) that said she was one of the most gifted educators and academics they knew. While she counted her time in academia as an influence, she named her students as her “best teachers.”
Jeni had a print out of a Walter Barbe quote positioned right behind her chair:
If you’ve explained something to a child a thousand times and they still do not understand… it is not the child who is the slow learner.Walter Barbe
When I finished teaching a math group, I enjoyed retiring to my desk to watch Jeni work her magic with some second graders. Jeni was so very “in the moment” with those students. She previewed books, and asked questions about the texts genuinely, with that head cocked to the side like Tracy Zager. I watched her and the students smile. Laugh. Wink. These kids learned how to read!
Afterwards, Jeni and I would talk about our work. Jeni listened patiently as I discussed challenges I had with a group of fifth graders that had somehow ballooned to 12 students crowded around a table intended for 4. She offered suggestions, and also pointed out small and beautiful things I was doing. Jeni always made me feel capable, even when something wasn’t going well.
We didn’t always talk about work. Jeni was a dynamic story teller, and sometimes listening to stories was more therapeutic than discussing Jack’s struggles with division. She’d share tales of her divorce from her first husband, meeting her second “forever” husband on a night out salsa dancing, and growing their family with a dog and cats and three absolutely delicious children. (Those are Jeni’s words, but I agree: her children, though older now, are still delicious.) Jeni loved teaching, with a fiery passion, but she loved her family so much she would ache. Sometimes, she’d sneak her kids into our school for the day. They’d lie on the floor with coloring books while she worked to segment words with 7 year olds.
Jeni transferred to another school, but we maintained our friendship over the years. Together, we brought our children to protests for immigrant rights and also the Museum of Science. She and her kids were some of the first people to visit when my oldest child was born. We’d talk about parenting, and our incredible husbands, and our childhoods, and — always! — teaching.
Then we’d talk about even more teaching… and chemo, and how my mom died when I was young, and how cancer sucks. Jeni was diagnosed with colon cancer a year or two after she transferred away from my school. Treatment beat it into submission several times, and every time I was convinced it was gone for good. When she was diagnosed with leukemia on top of the colon cancer in December 2020, I knew we were dealing with something as fiesty as Jeni, pound for pound.
Jeni and I talked about how my mother’s death changed my family, and what supports I most valued in the wake of that loss. Jeni and I talked about what it might be like to die. Throughout this, Jeni also wanted to hear about my students, and what I was struggling with at school, even in the last week of her life.
Jeni kept teaching until her legs couldn’t walk. She started a new round of reading recovery groups even after her doctors told her that she should be measuring her life in weeks, and not months or years. She delayed hospice supports because she was afraid they’d tell her she couldn’t teach anymore. “My body is too weak for chemotherapy, and it’s robbed me of my ability to enjoy food, but I can still talk to six year olds about good books!” she announced.
Jeni did not have any sort of martyr complex. This final act of teaching wasn’t out of obligation, but out of love. The idea of waiting to die at home was so thoroughly depressing; she’d rather spend the day listening to first graders.
These first graders brought her so much joy.
A few hours later, she sent me a follow-up.
But every day is a new day in teaching.
Jeni and I cried a lot in the last few weeks of her life. One afternoon, right before a numbing dose of morphine, she thanked me for welcoming her tears. “Well, you’re dying!” I blurted out. “That’s really sad!” And we laughed, too. Like always, we told stories, and we talked about teaching.
Jeni died on November 4, 2021.
True to form, I went on a long and self-indulgent rant about my professional influences in response to Dan’s tweet. I started with my own teachers and went right through formal and informal mentors, and books, and conferences sessions I attended years ago. I ended by saying that, I don’t know, my influences are “50% talking with someone about something that it is hard.”
(I still can’t believe that Marilyn Burns tweets at me! Talk about influences!)
I miss Jeni a lot. She made me a better teacher. She made me a better person.
“I consider teaching a conversation in which you listen very carefully before you respond.”-Marie Clay, via the door to Jeni’s classroom