Wednesday, March 19, 2014

On the Loss of a Mentor

My practicum cohort and our fearless leader (May 2002)
I met Jenn Cook in the spring of 2002 while doing my teaching practicum at UMass Amherst. A doctoral student herself, Jenn had stepped in to help guide our haphazard group of pre-service teachers because the professor assigned to our cohort had to take an emergency leave of absence. Little did I know then just how profound an impact this amazing woman would have on my life.

During our time together that semester, Jenn helped to forge the very core of my educational philosophy. One rooted in compassion, innovation, and more than a little bit of mischief. She pushed me to see passed perceived limitations, to resist the pull of the status quo. Most importantly she taught me the importance of figuring out what I believed in and staying true to it no matter what.

Midway through my practicum, I was having difficulty getting my sophomores to read Lord of the Flies for homework. After listening to me lament their lack of investment and responsibility, Jenn gently asked me whether I thought it was more important for my students to learn to do their homework or to read Lord of the Flies. There was no judgement in her question. No right answer that she was hoping for. She just wanted me to think about it. To figure out what I, as a soon to be educator, believed was most important. And it was by this process of gentle nudging and encouragement that Jenn helped me establish my beliefs about teaching and learning.  

Years later as I left Dr. Carolyn Panofsky's office having just established my plan of study for getting my M. Ed at RIC, I noticed Jenn's name on a placard in the hallway and decided to see if she was in. I was a bit nervous that she wouldn't remember me right away as we'd not seen each other in more than seven years. But those fears were immediately put to rest when Jenn looked up from her work, saw me and literally jumped out of her seat to give me a bear hug exclaiming "Kelly Visconti! How the hell are you?!" She then proceeded to ask me all kinds of questions about my family and work. I couldn't believe she remembered all of these details about my life. 

But that was Jenn. She had this incredible knack for making you feel like you were the most important person in the room. She was one the most genuine, kind spirited people I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. 

RIWP Summer Institute (July 2013)
This past July I signed up to participate in the Rhode Island Writing Project's Summer Institute. As luck would have it, Jenn had taken over as the co-director of the program and thus was slated to be the facilitator for that summer's institute along with the incomparable Madonna Thompson. I had heard nothing but good things about the program and was excited to be a part of what was sure to be an amazing summer of professional development. But my experience far exceeded those expectations.

Those three weeks during the SI were magical. How could you not love an experience that Jenn would later describe as a "fantastic creative free-for-all"? Jenn's willingness to take risks, to push the envelope was infectious. It inspired me to try things I'd never had the time or the confidence to attempt. That summer changed me profoundly not only as a teacher of writing but as a human being. I rediscovered the joy of creating. I redefined myself as a creator, a person with something of worth to offer.

Jenn did that. She inspired us to be our best selves. 

If there is any solace to be found in this awful situation, it is that there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have been influenced, directly or indirectly, by Jenn--by her kindness, her passion, and her general bad-assery. Her spirit shines through every time we see things not only as they are but for what they could be, every time we take flying leaps of faith, or throw away all that is safe in favor of what is right.

RIWP Renewal RISD Museum Field Trip (November 2013)
I will miss this woman terribly but I feel her presence every time I meet up with my RIWP friends or read tweets from #digitink31, #teachouse or #actofhope. We may not all know each other personally but we are all connected by our love for this amazing woman.  And it is this legacy, this beautiful community that Jenn pieced together, that gives me comfort.

Rest in peace my friend.