I learned this weekend the devastating news that a pivotal person in my life was near death. Even hearing that it was close in these raw, heartbreaking days was enough to double me over with grief. I cried myself to sleep at four in the afternoon. I just now got the news that she had passed — how perfect to hear it at the same time I learn the news about Betsy Devos’ confirmation as Secretary of Education. For my friend Lee Mania was a schoolteacher. She must have been so distraught at the developments of the past few weeks. I hate to even think of her witnessing the country we’re about to become. Her passing now is merciful.
Lee was my best friend’s mom, and she came into my life when I was about 11 or 12 years old, at a time in my life when she was the IDEAL person to have nearby. The way some kids sprout up like bean poles, or suddenly grow beards, or bulky biceps, I felt the thoughts in my head, the words on my tongue expand and multiply with terrifying, dizzying swiftness. And with my home life I could have gone in so many ways — I kid you not, I could have been Timothy McVeigh. There was anger and violence and alcoholism and dark, dark discourse behind the walls of my own house. And there was real danger of my echoing it, perpetuating it. But I had a number of great teachers. Including Lee, who wasn’t my teacher, but taught me. To this day, I think of her as one of the most brilliant people I ever knew. She was incredibly articulate, erudite and funny. She bantered. And she talked to young people (she taught fifth grade) with the kind of respect most grown-ups reserve for other adults. She was the first adult in my life who seemed to sense who I was and knew how to talk to me, how to converse in such a way so to include ALL of me, and in so doing, she catalyzed my transformation into who I am right now. That’s not too strong to say.
Lee was kind and patient and the most rational person I had ever met. In fact, her parenting style was so calm, I didn’t even recognize it as such at first. They used to have this little Japanese car; I’d slam the lightweight door shut when I got in, adolescent fashion, and she’d say “You know, you really don’t have to slam that.” She must have had to say it 50 times before I understood that she was asking me not to do it. That was not how behavior got corrected in my house.
Her son Matt was my best friend from grades 7 through 12. When I was about 13 she brought the pair of us to the JFK Library up in Boston soon after it opened. A small thing for them, to have me along. For me, it was the sort of thing that changed my life. And so much that she valued, like her love of Bob Dylan, got transmitted to me by hanging out with her son.
Yeah, I’m an absolute fuckin’ wreck right now. But there’s something just kind of perfect about her leaving us just now. Just perfect. All I got at the moment besides sorrow is a world of gratitude and a determination to deserve the investment she made in me. Lee, you were a really, really good teacher.