A Final Interview With David Menasche, Beloved Teacher and Author

Fuck cancer indeed, David.
Fuck cancer indeed, David.
Courtesy of David Menasche

Ever since 2006, life for David Menasche must have felt like he sneaked unnoticed into some VIP section, knowing that any moment some malevolent security guard could emerge, point a meaty finger his way, and toss him out.

"I really don't ask anymore what their prognosis is for survival," Menasche told New Times in an interview on October 15. "Because the truth is there is no earthly explanation for why I should be alive. I literally have half a brain."

David Menasche, a beloved teacher and author, died 36 days after our interview, succumbing to an eight-year battle with a brain cancer he was originally told would kill him after two months. [New Times intended to do an article about him in an issue that will appear next week, but he became too ill before we could finish and do the accompanying photo shoot.]

See also: David Menasche, Local Author and Teacher With Brain Cancer, Dies

But not before leaving behind quite the trail.

Menasche, a Broward native, was teaching English at Coral Reef Senior High in Miami when he was first diagnosed. He received the news the day before Thanksgiving in 2006.

It wasn't a Hollywood diagnosis -- that familiar scene in the doctor's office we've all been subjected to in film after film: The doctor says the word cancer, the sound cuts off, lips move with no sound, a numbness falls over the dazed patient like a heavy blanket.

"I had no idea what he was talking about," Menasche said. "He was speaking to me in this medical jargon that made absolutely no sense. It wasn't until he actually put it into a sports metaphor that it actually started to make sense."

The doctor told him to imagine he was holding a golf ball in his hand. "That's the tumor in your right temporal lobe," he told Menasche. The more it grew, the more it would crush his brain. Menasche asked if it was cancer and remembers the doctor almost chuckling at his question.

"I lost it. I cried. I didn't just cry gently; I sobbed. And it wasn't tears of sadness. It was chaos, confusion," Menasche remembered. "It just blew me away."

His brother -- a pillar of support in his life -- finally snapped him out of it. After that, Menasche received an emergency surgery and started undergoing chemo. He continued to teach until suffering an episode that took 80 percent of his vision and the use of the left side of his body. Doctors still don't know if it was a seizure or a stroke, but it took him out of the classroom for good.

Crippled, nearly blind, and feeling useless, Menasche decided to try something a bit drastic. He embarked on a journey across the country to see his former students. It was a stunt he'd later turn into a book called The Priority List: A Teacher's Final Quest to Discover Life's Greatest Lessons -- a name he borrowed from an assignment he used to give his students in which he asked them to list the most important things in their lives.

On our call back in October, one of the things Menasche was looking forward to the most was a Ted Talk he'd be giving at Florida International University on November 13. Unfortunately, it never came to fruition. Its theme was going to be "The Fearless Journey."

There was no hesitation when we asked Menasche if his cross-country journey that spawned his book was, in fact, a fearless journey.

"Not in the least -- completely the opposite," he told us. "I was going to see people I hadn't seen in 15 or 16 years, in cities I had never been in while blind, crippled, and alone. And this is all in the winter."

But easy or not, Menasche did it. With only half a brain, half a body, and nearly no vision, Menasche landed a book deal. A year after that, Warner Bros. bought the movie rights to The Priority List: A Teacher's Final Quest to Discover Life's Greatest Lessons. Steve Carell was picked to play Menasche in the film.

 

Menasche's attitude toward the film was one of hesitant optimism. The lack of creative control was something that obviously troubled him.

"It's been a little bit nerve-wracking, to be honest. Because I have very little say over what this movie will ultimately be," Menasche said.

What he does want it to ultimately be is a message of inspiration, though not necessarily wrapped in a shiny, smiling package. Menasche hopes the movie will take on a darker, more realistic tone. An angle he originally envisioned for his book but was thwarted by the publishers.

Though, he does have some other notes.

"I told them, look, if you guys want to fictionalize anything, make me look tall."

He was content to learn Steve Carell is five-foot-eight. "That's four extra inches. I'll take it."

David Menasche's final month on Earth wasn't much different from any other one in the past eight years. He was excited about his work with the nonprofit charity Voices Against Brain Cancer. He had found a new passion for public speaking and couldn't wait for his Ted Talk. He was setting goals and surely would have accomplished them had he had the time.

When Menasche picked up the phone to talk to us and we asked him how he was doing, he calmly said, "I'm doing well. I can't complain." But he easily could have. If anyone could complain, it was David. And that was what made him so remarkable. It's the reason Hollywood is investing quite a lot of money to turn his story into a movie.

How does one continue living when shown your own expiration date?

David Menasche never pretended he didn't see it. It just never stopped him from doing the things that he wanted.

Because of that, his expiration date turned into more of a "best by" date, and David Menasche lived when he was supposed to die.

"To paraphrase Nietzsche, a person who has a why to live can always figure out a how," Menasche said. "For me, my why was my classroom -- my students. I genuinely cared about them and wanted to be there for them and help them. And I knew I was going to feel just as sick if I stayed at home."

You can purchase a copy of The Priority List: A Teacher's Final Quest to Discover Life's Greatest Lessons here.

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