At Matanzas High School, an Irrepressible Teacher’s Untimely Farewell, For Now
FlaglerLive | September 18, 2012
Chekhovian convention has it that if you show a gun in the first act, it’d better go off by the play’s end. This being Matanzas High School, guns aren’t allowed. But this being Jo Ann Nahirny’s classroom, dramatic convention, and drama, apply. This year, and today, more than any.
There were two gun equivalents in Nahirny’s classroom today. The first was a stack of envelopes she received from colleagues and students at the beginning of what has turned out to be her last with her students for the next three months. The stack sat by her desk. She couldn’t open it all day. She wouldn’t open it. One of the school’s most popular teachers—and most hard-assed, as she says her principal Chris Pryor once described her, though he categorically denies it (“I would never refer to a teacher in public or private like that,” Pryor said)—, Nahirny’s school-year is being hijacked by the abdominal cancer she thought she had defeated in 2006, when surgeons removed an eight-pound tumor and a kidney the tumor had crushed. The tumor is back. That’s the second gun.
Nahirny suspected the stack of envelopes might contain something that would make it difficult for her to finish the day. She didn’t want to lose it, at least not before the day was done. She had a hectic one, gorged in words that make SAT and Advanced Placement English tests the rhetorical sadism they are: writhe; reciprocate; loquacious; exegesis. Not to mention one particular student’s fetish with outhouses.
Nahirny was also not sold on the day’s farewells. “I don’t want people to feel sorry for me,” she said between classes. “My goal is to be back here in three months. My daughter graduates December 21st.” From Stetson. She intends to be at the ceremony. She intends to pick up where Mrs. Beal, her replacement—whose own backstory is a subplot all its own—will leave off in January. In the meantime she intends to stay connected with her students down to Skyping them in class from wherever she’s being treated.
“I’m going to be puking out when I’m gone, I don’t need to puke when I read your papers,” she reminds her AP students more than once. And she reminds them of her editing etiquette, and of the rules of peer editing (when students correct each other’s papers). Speaking of hard-assed: “The red pen is reserved for me,” she tells them. “You get purple green and orange. I’m not kidding. And I don’t buy that BS about red hurts your self-esteem, or whatever.”
First and last-day-of-school stories are routine to the point of cliché, as are stories about teachers winning awards or returning from far afield to tell their tales. Nahirny herself last year started writing columns for FlaglerLive to chronicle the challenges of her profession. “The column was supposed to be about what it’s like to be a teacher,” she says. “What happens when the teacher becomes a cancer patient?” And what happens when she has to say goodbye five weeks into the school-year, hoping for the best and fearing the worst? She has no illusions. She’s read every article her doctor has written in the Journal of Oncology. She knows that Shands hospital in Gainesville only had 58 patients who had her kind of cancer between 1994 and 2007, “and I know what the success rate is, how many people died, how many people survived, and I want to know where I’m going to be.”
It recurs in 50 percent of patients. “Most people who get this type of cancer are in their 70s or 80s,” Nahirny says. “Maybe the cancer won’t kill them, but old age will. But I’m only turning 50 next month. So if my life expectancy is 80 years, this could keep coming back and coming back. As my doctor so honestly told me, there’s limits to the number of times a person can have major abdominal surgeries. When will that be for me?”
There’s also the second-guessing: “I’m worried about not being a strong person. That’s what I’m worried about. Everybody says that I’m a strong person, you’ll be fine. What if I’m not?” She keeps wondering if she did something that could have prevented the tumor. She doesn’t smoke. She doesn’t drink. She works hard. She acknowledges having to lose weight, but that’s two thirds of the population, and two-thirds of the population doesn’t get tumors the size of babies growing in them. “The sad part is I’ll never know,” she says. “And my husband says how come this doesn’t happen to the bums but it happened to you?” Her husband, whose mother died after a long battle with Alzheimer’s less than three weeks ago and his father being diagnosed with lymphoma, which makes Nahirny feel like Job at times. “They say God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” she says, “but honestly, at this point, I’m sort of saying, Really? Then what’s this?”
If the stack of envelopes isn’t the only metaphorical gun in the room, those cancer cells in her are a whole arsenal. They’re never far from her mind. They’ve literally—and emotionally and financially and spiritually—redefined her life short of taking control of it. She lacks no clarity as far as what defines her most. But you wouldn’t know that she is to have her first radiation treatment in less than 24 hours, beginning Wednesday at 9 a.m., and continuing every weekday, twice a day. Nahirny doesn’t feel one bit sick. She doesn’t look it. Nor act it. Her teaching style is combination stand-up, performance art and intellectual drill sergeant. “I never sit,” she says, going on six hours into her teaching day, and several hours of preparation before that. And she doesn’t. Not until after 2 p.m., when the students leave for the day.
“I don’t want these kids to see me upset about this,” she says. “I have a girl in my class, last year her father was dying of brain cancer, you know. I’ve had kids whose parents have died while they were in my class. It’s not the image I want to project. Let them see me go through struggles now because they’re going to go through struggles later and I want them to see somebody who handles adversity positively, not negatively. That’s why I tell them well, you tell me your little sob stories about your girlfriend breakups and your boyfriend breakups but go through what I go through and then tell me you have a hard life.”
“I love the kids, and so many of them are so upset, have literally collapsed in my arms in tears and more,” she wrote this week, after the piece she wrote graphically describing her recent treatment preparation was published, triggering an outpouring of support. “Actually, I love my job, despite its many, many challenges and frustrations, and I know deep down in my heart I am exactly where I am supposed to be. Many of the folks at MHS are like family to me, no, they are family. My closest friends in the world work there with me.”
Al Castle, a math teacher in his 40th—and final—year of teaching, who was himself at death’s door less than two years ago, alludes to the coming separation during a class change. A wall, not sound-proof, separates his classroom from Nahirny’s. “It’s not going to be the same without her,” he says.
The more immediate impact will be on her students.
“I had her all of last year and we got really close,” Vincent Morana, a senior who calls her “my girl,” says. “She helped me through a lot last year. There were personal issues, there was a death in my family, there was a personal issue I had to overcome, and just in general, academics as well. She’s not afraid to tell you as it is, and her teaching skills are outstanding.” Despite the despotism. “She’s tough but it’s good. It’s exactly what students need. It’s non-stop.”
At the end of each class today Nahirny told her students that that would be it for her for the next three months. “I will not see you until January 2nd,” she tells them. “Mrs. Beale will be in charge of you starting end of today. You may email me at the same email school address and I will respond to you.”
Filling a popular teacher’s shoes is now old hat for Mary Beale. The veteran teacher had retired, gone to teach in Egypt for a while then returned to Flagler County only to be called in to complete the rest of the 2011 school year at Flagler Palm Coast High School when Ed Koczergo, the drama teacher, abruptly quit after the To Kill a Mockingbird controversy. It was a difficult transition, and Beale wasn’t hired back the following year, but here she was again, preparing to fill in for Nahirny. This time she’s had much longer in the classroom, alongside Nahirny, to prepare herself and the students to take over. And the school year is still young. Nahirny’s the one with the separation anxiety.
“This is my class, these are my kids,” Nahirny says, Beale a few feet away.
“They are, and they will be,” Beale assures her.
Twenty-three minutes after the last student has left, Nahirny opens the envelopes: gift cards, greeting cards, and checks amounting to several hundred dollars.
So much for one gun going off, a shot of good fortune Nahirny welcomes. It’ll help with a mountain of expenses ahead, though Nahirny has also qualified for extra days of sick leave, thanks to a system within the district where employees give away some of their own sick days into a “sick day bank” for other employees to use when they exhaust their own.
The other gun has yet to go off. And its consequences is anybody’s guess.