First-time memoirist David Menasche is the kind of teacher who cares about his students as much as the literature on his syllabus, remembering his pupils’ insights and strengths, keeping in touch with them long after their shared classroom time ends. Therefore, it is no surprise that after a six-year battle with terminal brain cancer, Menasche decided to forgo further treatment, embarking on a cross-country journey from Florida to California. Instead of chemo and MRI’s he chose to couch-surf, buy rounds of beer, and reminisce with the most important people in his life: his former students. The Priority List: A Teacher's Final Quest to Discover Life's Greatest Lessons is an account of this time.
How did your journey come about?
I had a stroke that took away half of my vision and the mobility in the left side of my body. Though I couldn’t teach anymore, but I still wanted to be with my students. I put a post on Facebook, “I’d like to do some travelling. Who has a couch I can sleep on?” Within 48 hours I had 50 responses! One of the most interesting things to do when I got to these people’s houses was to look through their book collections. For instance, Claire Contreras [one of the students he visited in Boston] had five or six books she’d stolen from my classroom. Cancer did not take my spirit away. It took away my body. I didn’t want to die of cancer anymore, I wanted to start living instead. If I was going to wait until I was fully healthy to take a trip like that, I never would have gone.
How did you go about writing the book?
I did the entire thing on voice recognition, because I can only type with one hand. While I was travelling, if I could find 10 minutes of quiet, I would take out my phone, speak a paragraph or so, and then e-mail it to myself. When I finally settled here in New Orleans, I made a unified narrative.
Books are so important to you. What are you reading right now?
I can read on my phone. The world is a lot like looking through a paper towel roll. Right now I’m reading David Sedaris’s new book. I’ve reread Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume, since I’m living in New Orleans. Also, the ancient stoics, such as Marcus Aurelius. Stoic philosophy seems to help me in my current situation.
At the end of The Priority List you mention that your family has a Holocaust history. The stoics seem to fit with your particular survivor narrative.
Everybody’s got a bag of hammers, and they’re always too heavy. My mother’s had more than her fair share—she was born in a concentration camp in Siberia, and yet she still went on to live the American dream. Things can always be worse, but they can be better too.
Are you currently in treatment?
Yes. I spent four to five days in the hospital a week. I’m back on chemotherapy right now. My tumor is stable, which is amazing news. I just had my first of 42 MRIs that was better than the previous ones. So I’m in the middle of some good news right now!