Saying Good-Bye

Art work created by AISJ ES art teacher Richard Baldwin

The last months of last school year were among the most difficult of my career. The tragic illness and passing of my dear friend and colleague Barbara Rynerson was both a personal loss and a loss felt throughout the international teaching world. She was a remarkable educator and human whose impact on the lives of children, schools, and friends was profound. I miss her terribly. This post is an attempt to say good-bye, to move on from wallowing in the depression of loss and the trauma of the experience. It in no ways does justice to the power of her legacy but hopefully allows some sense of marking a time of mourning that will allow me to be ready to continue the work we engaged in together as the new school year starts.

Dear Barbara,

I just finished a book called the Midnight Library by Matt Haig which explores the idea of the multiverse based on universal wave function. In the book a lost soul keeps trying on different possible lives to find the right one for her.  As I read it I imagined a path in the universe in which when I returned to Johannesburg, you would be there and we could have another Sunday walk and talk about books.  We would plan the next goals for ES literacy, Learning Support, and ELL, and have a good laugh over a glass of sprankl.  

But alas, I will have to begin the year without you as a partner in that thinking. I spent the entire summer holiday catching up with family and recharging with excellent books.  I read the The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles which was the last book you recommended to me.  It was full of memorable characters and second chances, but I did not love any of them as much as Count Alexander Rostov from A Gentleman in Moscow.  

I can’t remember if we had ever discussed Azar Nafisi. I feel like we must have because Reading Lolita in Tehran is one of my favorite books. I love her use of literature to connect her personal story and the work of maintaining democracy. She makes the case that you can’t have democracy without the novel because reading novels helps you to try on new identities and experience. It builds empathy which allows you to see another’s point of view and to see people who disagree with you as another on the range of ideas rather than the enemy.  Her new book Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times continues this theme that is so present in her work and so needed in this time. She writes it as a series of letters to her father that continues the conversations that they had about literature and the world during his lifetime. That was the inspiration for writing you this letter and putting it out in the world. The format reminds me of the recent book by Maryanne Wolf, Reader, Come Home which is a series of letters to readers about the importance and power of reading books. I know we have talked about her because she is one of my favorite researchers on the dyslexic brain and how to teach reading.  Her seminal book Proust and the Squid should be required reading for all teachers of reading (or maybe all teachers)

So I am stalling. Once again using books to escape from the tragedy of the last months of school. In the international school world, our closest friends and colleagues become our family.  I know that I never say it enough or clearly enough and so this letter to you is my way of honoring our connection. I learned so much from you as a professional. There are few people I have worked with who walk the walk as honestly as you did. Kids were always first. You greeted them in the morning, spent time with them in the classroom, read with them, played with them, laughed with them.  This always came first over meetings and email and paperwork.  How you found the time to do all that other work I never asked because that always got done too.  

They talk about the servant leader and you embodied that. You were so skilled in working with colleagues to build relationships and teams that could function without you -though your gentle hand and wisdom could always be felt. You had a vision not just for what a school should be doing in terms of early literacy or math, but also how it should operate in terms of its core relationships and teams. Your ability to understand context, have a vision, and realize it was masterul.

I also learned from you as a person. Your warmth and kindness were contagious and after you became our neighbor, you entered our family. I never said it or said it enough but our Sunday walks were often a highlight of the week for me. A time to process something difficult at work, a time to reflect on the recent novels we had read, a time to laugh, or a time to walk quietly in companionship. Thank you for those hours. Thank you for starting book club with me. Thank you for turning me on to Babylonstoren. Thank you for your unfailing support. Thank you for your friendship. Your death has left a whole in my Jo’burg life that will be impossible to fill. I hope I can hold on to the inspiration and guidance you shared and I observed in the year to come as we dive back into early childhood literacy, improving MTSS, and most importantly spending time with kids to nurture their growth and engage their curiosity. I miss you my friend but I will keep you in my heart as I continue the work we started together.

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