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A Teachers Final Quest to Discover Lifes Greatest Lessons


DaV id M EN as C H E
A Touchstone Book

Published by Simon & Schuster New YorkLondonTorontoSydneyNew Delhi


I think of my tattoos as a way of using my body to express myself. Almost like visual poetry. With my custom tattoos, nobody in this world has a body that looks like mine, and each one tells a story about my individual beliefs and experiences. Whether its the simple, stark, black 45-rpm record adapter on my left forearm that commemorates my friendship with my boyhood buddies or the sugar skulls on my right forearm, my ink, like my scars, reveals a bit of what lies beneath my skin. On my left leg is the rst tattoo I ever got, and it is godawful. When I was sixteen my friend Greg, who previously had tattooed only pigskin, tried out his art on me. He began with the outline of a tribal design Id drawn, doing such a bad job that I insisted on taking over and shading it myself. But I didnt help much. It is uneven and kind of gray with


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spots missing here and therea truly bad tattoo. In Miami, my students could get tattoos at the ea market where no one would ask for proof of age, but Id tell them to at least think before they ink. Dont get a tattoo that youll regret later, I always told them. Make sure theres a good story attached, because youre going to have to tell that story for the rest of your life. In fact, despite the botched rst attempt, theres only one tattoo that I truly regret. After my diagnosis, I was driving around with a friend, feeling antsy and bored. Id been reading about the great philosopher Marcus Aurelius and the philosophy of the Stoics in hopes of learning how to bravely cope with my disease and overcome it, and when we came across a storefront called Hell City Tattoos, I impulsively decided to have the symbol of the Stoics, a burning ame, tattooed on the palm of my hand. Youre not supposed to get the skin on your hands or feet tattooed, but I didnt know that at the time, and by that night it had already started to run and fade. I felt that I needed a redo of that tattoos sentiment, so I had the words Be Brave tattooed on my right wrist, the spot on my body thats most often in my direct line of vision. Later, when it became obvious that the treatments hadnt worked, and the doctor was insisting that I go the experimental drug route, I added I Decide across my chest. I think my favorite, though, is the tattoo I got on my back on the one-year anniversary of surviving cancer. Its the cover

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of the Modest Mouse album that came out at the time, a picture of a hot air balloon holding an anchoran image of struggle and survival. As my trip was winding down, I felt as if I had really earned it. After spending a quiet holiday with family and friends in New York, a kind of merging of Chanukah and Christmas, I was on the road again, this time to southern New England. Paula was at her mothers home in Vermont, where shed spent Christmas, but when I asked if we could meet up, she said she didnt think it was a good idea. Ive always been pretty intuitive, but apparently not about love. I was still hoping we could work things outwhat better way than to ring in the New Year together? But Paula seemed to be drifting further and further away. So she returned home to Florida and I boarded a train for Providence, Rhode Island. I arrived on Monday, December 31, on the heels of a blizzard that had blanketed the town in knee-deep snow. It was beautiful but frigid. My student Laura Dammann picked me up at the station. The snowbanks were so high that I felt like we were on a bobsled track driving back to her house. Laura had been my student in 2006, the same year I was diagnosed, and toward the end of that school year her father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. When she introduced the two of us, I found I related to him on many levels. Paul had been ill for a while and had endured brain surgery about ten years prior to relieve symptoms of epilepsy. He was a


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burly bear of a man with a boisterous personality not too dierent from my own, and we exchanged jokes and stories without any self-pity from either of us. I had the sense that if anyone could beat cancer, it would be Paul. Id lost touch with Laura after she graduated, and I didnt know whether or not Paul was still alive. On our rst day together, her mother and sister joined us at the house, and we all sat down to share some warm tea. Across the room, I saw a picture of Paul on the wall. How is he? I asked. They told me that hed passed away about a year before. His health had deteriorated slowly and hed lost his abilities one by one. Toward the end he was wearing diapers and waking up several times a night, calling out in pain. I felt awful that they had all gone through this and I felt guilty for standing in front of them alive and in relatively good health. More than anything, though, I felt like I was getting a glimpse at my own future. The next day when Laura asked if Id like to go sledding with her family at a nearby golf course, I jumped at the chance. Having lived in southern Florida for most of my life, I could count the times Id ridden on a sled on one hand. And the only time Id ever been on a golf course was when I was a teenager living in Florida and my friends and I hotwired a bunch of golf carts and drove them around one night. The golf course in Providence had giant hills. We all took turns sledding on slick plastic disks that looked like garbage

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can covers and sent us spinning. I was only able to grasp it with my right hand, and during one of my turns I ipped over a bump and couldnt hold on. I ew up into the air and came down smack on the back of my head. As I made my way back to Laura, I could see the fear in her eyes. I probably had a mild concussion, judging from the throbbing sensation in my skull, but the best thing about knowing youre going to die is that you stop caring about minor things like that. Months before, Id asked my doctor at the Duke University Hospital about smoking, and he said, Even if you got lung cancer today, the brain cancer will probably kill you rst. So smoke em if you got em. That day, sledding was my nicotine, and I went down the hill again and again, eventually hitting my head one more time, but enjoying every moment with the same reckless abandon that had motivated me to take the trip in the rst place. As the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata legendarily said, Better to die on your feet than to live on your knees! With our hats encrusted in snow and our ngers and toes nally too frozen to move, we went back to the house. While Laura fetched us some tea, I noticed that she had a copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest by Ken Kesey, one of my favorite books, on her bookshelf. My students always loved the novel, which was likely due partly to my own burning connection to it. I found countless lessons within


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the text, particularly related to the themes of my life: conformity, independence, and victory. Conned to a mental ward, the books narrator, the Chief, ghts against the evil Nurse Ratched to retain control of his mind. He does this by pretending to be deaf and unable to speak, a small victory but a victory nonetheless. When his friend McMurphy loses control of his own mind after undergoing a lobotomy, the Chief sets him free by smothering him to death and then frees himself by breaking through the window and escaping from the ward. Ive had it since high school, Laura said, when I pointed out the book. Do you remember it much? I asked. I still love the characters, she replied. I told her a story Id learned while researching the book before I taught it. The character of McMurphy has a tattoo of a two-pair poker hand consisting of black aces and eights, the same hand, the story goes, that Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was shot dead on August 2my birthdayin 1876. Its been called a dead mans hand in honor of Hickok ever since, and Id had it had tattooed on my forearm before I left on my trip. I rolled up my sleeve to show her. It represents my philosophy for living since my diagnosis, I told her. You cant control the cards youre dealt, just how you play them.

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I was a freshman in high school and I got pregnant. I called him and asked him what I should do. He told me I needed to sit down and tell my parents. I was terried but it was good advice. I had a miscarriage after a month, but I continued to right. Giving them the chance to handle the truth made us even closer than we were. use his advice. I didnt lie to my parents after that. He was

Laura Dammann, Coral Reef Senior High School, Class of 2008

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