Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A light has gone out

This past weekend the world lost one of its bright lights. My dear friend Ann Marie Gutshall died. She had been battling colon cancer, a result of the treatment for cervical cancer when she was in her 20s, for over a year. Her death has hit me hard and I thought it was only appropriate to post a tribute to her on my blog.

I first met Ann Marie my first year of teaching at Jacksonville Commons Middle School. She was a new teacher as well and quickly established a "rebel" reputation. She didn't care if her students listened to their music as long as they were doing their work. In fact, she often encouraged them to include raps in their presentations. Now, that might not make sense if you don't understand the challenging population that we were in charge of. Jacksonville isn't exactly rural, but it isn't the inner city of New York either. Of course, many of students had moved into the area from New York and other cities and so our school took on an inner-city feel. She knew how to be tough and demanding of our students without being degrading. I wanted to become a teacher like her.

My second year of teaching she kindly agreed to be my assistant coach to the cheerleading team. I would get so fired up sometimes knowing that the team could do more than they were willing to do the work for, and there she was to talk me down and encourage the team. I had an especially difficult set of parents that year and she knew how to handle them with poise and confidence, even as they threatened to sue me for hazing (because I had the team do push-ups if they repeatedly got something wrong after being helped or if they were messing around during stunting practice). Through all those extra hours together for practices and games I believe we became good friends. Later in the year we attended a social studies conference together. I remember her kicking my butt out of bed in the mornings so we could go work out or walk the hotel before our seminars began. I know that she would literally kick my ass for not starting my marathon training and sitting around the house. She was training for the Marine Corps marathon when she was diagnosed with colon cancer. Now I really want to run, not just for Global Orphan Team, but for Ann Marie and cancer research.

Watching the Super Bowl on Sunday after getting this news was even harder because I kept flashing back to the Pats-Panthers pre-season game that we attended together. She was such an NFC fan I know that she was rooting for the Giants. It always helps to have an angel on your side.

I am so saddened by her death for a couple of reasons. The first is that her son will not have the opportunity to learn directly from his mom. I know that his dad will regale him with stories of her, her quick sense of humor, and all the good that she did. But that's not the same as witnessing her first hand. M was adopted domestically and will be 2 soon, just before Elena's birthday. She and I talked often about how to raise a confident multiracial child in this world. I will miss those conversations and her plain insight.

I am also deeply saddened that she will never step foot into a classroom again. The ideas she had for connecting material with her students were truly inspired and I loved the conversations we had about the classroom. We both struggled with the idea of teaching again at JCMS if our hubbies were transferred back to Jacksonville. On the one hand, teaching there, teaching that population is hard. On the other hand, those students deserve teachers who are committed and truly care as much as any other students, and perhaps maybe more. Because of this, if we move back east, I plan to teach again at JCMS if they will have me.

Goodbye, Ann Marie. I will miss you. I will miss hearing your statements "Who cares what the administration thinks about the chaos in my classroom. I know that my students are learning and growing," or "They are crazy to think x -- they must not y." Or "Beckie, chill out. You are taking this too seriously." I learned a lot from you. Chris will miss your insights on Native American culture. I will miss being your friend.

Rest well.


Todd, Amy and Evan said...

I was so excited to see an update to your blog since it's been a while on the happenings with you and the family. Imagine my shock when I go from excitement in expecting to read about Garrett and Elena to sadness in hearing about the loss of your dear friend.

I lost my mother a few years ago and know some of the pain, but I can't imagine the extra pain of losing a good friend and at a young age. I'm so sorry to hear about your loss and my thoughts go out to you.


Kris and Mindy said...

I am so, so sorry for this loss in your life. She seemed like an amazing and wonderful woman...your tribute to her would mean so much...that you thought of her in the ways that you mentioned. I will pray for her family, for her sweet child, and for all those touched by her life.
Many Hugs

N & D said...

So sorry for the loss of such a special person :(

Tam said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. Your tribute was beautiful.

Kelly said...

Oh Becky this is so heartbreaking. :( I am so sorry for the lost of your obviously wonderful friend. :( The world seems unfair when we loose special people like this. I'm praying for everyone's healing. {{{BIG HUGS}}}}

Our Family of 5 said...

Oh Beckie, I am so very sorry for your loss as well. She seemed like a amazing person! Heaven will be a better place with your sweet friend there!

Tyler Witter said...

Hey Mrs. Merrill,
This is Tyler Witter. You and Mrs. Gutshall were my teachers about 4-5 years ago when I attended JCMS(your first year there). I am just now finding out about this tragedy and it hurts. She was the best teacher I ever had and I can't begin of how big a shock this is. She taught me so much. If you can't remember who I am I'd be glad to send a photo that way if she at least has a mirage of photos with her you could put my photo with it. I just wished I could have seen her one more time for she had told our class, which I very clearly remember, that she would come back in about 2 years and teach at northside my senior year which is now.
The best wishes to you.

Tyler Witter