We Are All Teachers After All

We Are All Teachers After All


A poignant obituary for a 29-year-old high school English teacher who died of breast cancer tells the tale of a generous, unguarded person who shared her end-of-life journey with students and colleagues, while holding out great hope for a reprieve from her disease. Her courage in facing the disease and in sharing her challenges moved and inspired hundreds — probably even thousands, if you consider the ripple effect.

Of course, not all teachers suffering from a life-threatening illness are willing or able to do this. What motivated this young woman to be so open was not detailed in the obituary. But the message to me, loud and clear is this: she may have had a classroom from which to enlighten and inspire, but the reality is that when it comes to death, we are all teachers.

Let me backtrack for a moment. I have long held that we are all teachers because we, as humans, can’t help but look over there — at the lives of others. “Keeping your eyes on your own paper” is easier said than done when our neighbors leave in the morning for jobs that are more interesting than ours, in cars that are newer than ours and with (we think) more money in their pockets than we have. 

We notice the kids in the neighborhood who are well-mannered, bright, show athletic prowess. We admire the people who are positive, happy people who draw the attention of others who we admire. And they teach us by presenting a model to which we aspire. “I will make sure to teach my [future] children good manners,” we decide. Or, “maybe I’ll start saving for a car like that.”
But wait! There’s more. We are also paying attention when someone in the front of the line at the store acts like a jerk to the young clerk who should not be a target of someone’s bad day at work. We can’t help but pay attention to that person who cuts us off in traffic or speeds in and out between cars to get somewhere one minute sooner. We learn from these distressing behaviors how not to act and how not to treat others.

Like it or not, others are our teachers and we are theirs.

Because talk of death often comes in hushed tones in stressful circumstances, our learning is often stunted. When it comes to the end of life, the most common thing you’ll hear is, “I hope I die peacefully in my sleep.” Ahhh, if it were only that easy. This is the winning-the-lottery version of our demise. But, just like winning the lottery, we can’t count on it. 

What we can do is begin to pay attention to the teachers around us. Notice the people who attend to their relationships, staying clear with loved ones, mending fences as they are broken, showing appreciation and kindness in the moment instead of risking that sick feeling of wishing you could just have a second chance. Look around and see what others are doing to “get their affairs in order”: what will be done with possessions? How do they organize the paperwork of their lives? Have they thought to make a general end-of-life checklist? And then listen as people share the story of the dying who move toward the end of life with grace and courage while facing pain, suffering, uncertainty. We really have so much to learn.

Author Michael Singer, in his book The Untethered Soul, says “It is truly a great cosmic paradox that one of the best teachers in all of life turns out to be death. No person or situation could ever teach you as much as death has to teach you. While someone could tell you that you are not your body, death shows you. While someone could remind you of the insignificance of things you cling to [schedules, worry, bills, stress, appointments], death takes them all away in a second. While people can teach you that men and women of all races are equal and that there is no difference between the rich and the poor, death instantly makes us all the same.”

If you are a presence in the life of a youngster, you have likely examined your words and actions in light of what that child might learn from you. But don’t forget all the others who are watching. What life lessons are you teaching?



Laurel Yeates is a daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, doula, nanny, Alameda Sun calendar editor and a nascent thanatologist. Contact her at lyeates@alamedasun.com.