Family & Friends,  Personal,  Teaching

Remembering John

John and I at his retirement party during my 5-year reunion.

The fourteenth of August was a sad day for me and today, the news is sinking in.  One of my favourite people in the world has lost his fight with cancer.  Many of my friends loved and respected John.  For me, as has always been my way, the best I can do is write something and share it.  I know John would approve, he loved the written word as much as I do.

John Cawthorne was a pivotal person in my life.  I never had him as a teacher, I couldn’t find the time to make it to Book Club meetings (though he gave me the books and we discussed them in his office) because I was always running around like a madwoman, and I wasn’t even supposed to have him as an advisor to guide me through registration.  None of that stopped John from being my friend and my mentor.

The first time I met John, which was the only thing he responded to–not Dean Cawthorne, not Professor, not sir–I was just a wee Freshman at BC.  I was a triple major with Drama, English, and Secondary Education and my advisor was supposed to be someone in the maths and science areas.  My mother had spoken to John at the parent orientation, explained that I have ADD, am prone to migraines, and am hypoglycemic as well as being more than 3,000 miles away from home at that point.  While she knew that I wouldn’t get homesick, she was still worried.  She then explained who my advisor was and asked if that person knew anything about the areas I was studying.  Apparently, they didn’t.  He assured my mother that he would take care of it.  Within hours, he found me, wandering the halls of Campion, both excited and lost.  He waved me over and said, “I’m John.  I’m going to be your advisor now, not the person on that sheet of paper.  I’m in Campion 104.  I’ll also be the faculty member for your FYPDS course that you take this year.”  I blinked at him.  I didn’t know the acronym then.  His response was, “Don’t worry, it mainly consists of eating ice cream, talking, and reading some books.  I’ll take care of any problems you have and we’ll sit together and get to the bottom of any questions.”  All I could say was, “Umm… okay… thanks?”

The first time I showed up in Campion 104, a week later, I found out that John was the associate dean of the school.  He didn’t have very many official advisees, but everyone came to him anyway.  His wife sent in cookies, brownies, cakes, and occasionally even pies in hopes that students would stop in for a treat.  He kept a fridge stocked with milk and plastic cups sat on top of it, because if you’ve got the time to stand there long enough to pour yourself a glass of milk and not just snag a treat and dash, John wanted to talk with you.  If you were having a problem, great or small, he wanted to hear it.  If you were in the hospital or went to the emergency room, there was an email waiting in your inbox within hours and he’d hunt you down to make sure you were okay soon after.  I don’t know how he did it, but he seemed to know everyone’s name.  By the end of first semester, he could spell my actual last name without a second thought.  By the end of second semester, we were close enough that he decorated my crutches with wire apples, a rearview mirror, and a horn (I was well known as Gimpy for the number of times I was on crutches in college) and threatened to add alphabet letters.  John made Campion 104 into the go-to place and made any person who walked into Campion feel like they had family in the building.  He was everybody’s favourite grandfather/father/uncle and he taught by asking questions, not giving answers.

Any time there was an issue or a debate over courses, which was almost every semester, I’d wander in, sit down in his office and we’d sort through mounds of data to figure out what I actually wanted to study, what I needed to study, and how we could match them up.  Twice, this meant an independent study with him.  John was the first to admit that he didn’t always get on with technology, but my passion was how to make technology work in an inner-city classroom.  As mentioned above, urban education was important to John.  It was one of his Causes, so he bit the bullet and said that so long as I did the justifications, had the proof, and could walk him through the website I designed and the way I wanted to use projectors for an Art Walk, he was all for it.  I got A’s on both because he said, “If the technology is easy enough that I can figure it out, anyone can.”  After those projects, I had completed my undergrad courses.  It was only my sophomore year, so John asked me what type of school I wanted to teach in.  Did I want private, parochial, charter, public?  I told him, I didn’t know.  All I knew was that I didn’t want to be anywhere near a private or parochial program at that point.  As a result, he put all of my classes and my student-teaching assignments in the Urban Education program.  It was a brilliant move.  I was recieving both undergraduate credit (for scholarship purposes) and graduate school credit for doing what I loved with like-minded people.  He was right when he told me I would lose my heart to the kids in my schools and that I would get on better with the grad students who were involved with it than I had with many of the undergraduates (I was having some social issues at the time, which he was also helping me with).  Because of John, I taught in Brighton, West Roxbury, Roxbury, and Southie.  Because of him, I interviewed and accepted a position in Fall River, the city where I met my kids, the ones John knew would steal my heart.  When I told him about the job his response was simply, “Good.  Now it’s your turn to make a family from your students.”  When I told him that I had lost my job he told me, “Well, you always did like a challenge.  What’ll you do now?”  I explained that I had to move home because I couldn’t afford my apartment and, because John understood my love for my students better than anyone else, he replied, “I’m sorry your going to have to let your children go, but you know that they’ll keep in touch, just like we do, maybe better since they get all this Facebook stuff.  Besides, you’ll come back and visit them.  You’ll go to their weddings, baptize their children, and be the one they come to when they need that extra little bit or verbal or electronic support.  Maybe, one day, they’ll even go to your wedding and batize your children.”  He was right, as he tended to be.  I go back to see my kids once a year and we’re in touch all the time.  I’m not married and I don’t have biological children of my own, but if I ever do, my kids will be invited.  I’ll fly them out if I have to.

One of the last set of instructions gave was “John says to read now.”  He knew that books were how we learned, how our worlds were expanded, and our imaginations engaged.  When he learned that I was a writer, he was thrilled.  He told me that he saw life lessons in my science fiction and fantasy books and that he thought I would make a book that is more obviously tied to reality someday.  When I told him that I was going to publish my blog under a pseudonym, he asked me why.  I explained everything I said here and his response was, “Well, then you need to commemorate something about your life so that the name you choose is still a part of you.”  One of the first things I did when I figured out my nom de plume was send him an email with Christiana Krump and explain my reasoning.  His email read, “Good for you.  Now, all you have to do is get your books published.  What’s your next step?”  That was John.  Supportive.  Funny.  Questioning.

John taught me a lot.  His spirit, his humor, and his love for others has taught many people many things.  For me, it’s hard to put into words just what he gave me.  I can name things like confidence, the ability to forgive myself when I couldn’t do something on my own, the ability to ask for help when I needed it, and the hope that I could change the lives of my students.  He gave me the belief that I deserved to be a success at both writing and teaching.  He taught me that in order to be a success, I need to remember to breathe, take time for myself, and laugh more.  I read in a student’s journal that she likes class because she thinks I am funny and that I make the students laugh all the time even though I sometimes ask really hard questions.  When I read that, my first thought was, “John would be happy with that.”

To say that John was funny is a dramatic understatement.  To say that he was a brilliant administrator for the Lynch School of Education is to not give credit where credit is due.  To say that his real achievements are those that you can list on paper–Harvard, Director of Education for the National Urban League, Associate Dean, Natchez fundraiser–is to say that you didn’t know John.  Yes, those things were important and good and right, but John didn’t do it to write things down on paper.  He did things because he truly cared about people.

I know that I am not alone when I say that John’s unconditional love and support changed my life.  I will always remember the lessons he taught me and I hope that I can impact even one person’s life in the way that John impacted so many.  All of us who were enveloped in his warmth will always love him, appreciate all that he has done, and will continue to live out the ideals that he shared.

John at his final graduation ceremony in 2011

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