I was cleaning out my friend’s classroom when I got the text from my husband last year: Anthony Bourdain died.
My heart fell. Then looked to blame like so many do when death visits. I knew it had to be Russia. It had to be the Russians. Anthony always walked a fine line every time he went there-and they had killed one of the guys he routinely met with prior to this news. “It can’t be suicide, it can’t be,” I thought, receiving the next text from my dear partner, PQ: He died by suicide.
I began to weep, openly in front of my co-workers and a student who was helping us clean. Initially they thought I was crying because we were cleaning out our friend’s classroom…our friend who was dying…our friend who was too young to die…like Tony. But unlike Tony, cancer was slowly destroying her eyesight, her insides, and her memory. We had decided to clean out her classroom as a gift to the family, and well, because after visiting her in Ann Arbor, we knew she would never teach again. It was a labor of love. It was a gift to our dear packrat friend’s family, and to our co-worker friends who were all still teaching their classes (our seniors had graduated days prior).
And all at once, something inside me just broke. Tony was my hero (and still is). Judy, our friend, was my hero (and still is). How do you lose two heroes in the span of weeks and continue? The sweet student who was helping us clean said, “It will be ok, Mattern,” and I couldn’t force myself to tell her that no, it wouldn’t.
Things would never be the same: I would never hear Judy call her students, folx, years ahead of the political correctness that can often continue to hold up patriarchal standards (“you guys”) and dismiss other genders entirely. I would never hear her in the hallway demanding a student that they “shape up or ship out.” I would never hear her students re-enacting Macbeth from a hilarious, modern approach. I would never hear her rummaging through papers upon papers trying to find that one example she needed to show us. I would never watch her in action, leading a Socratic Discussion or as she liked to call them years ago, a Fishbowl. Standing in the classroom next door to mine, where Judy had taught for 21 years and has hired me 14 years prior, it all fell apart.
I’ve never had an emotional connection to a celebrity like Tony-and never understood why people cried so hard at celebrity deaths until Tony’s. It must have stemmed from the memories I feel like I shared with him, and the lessons I feel like he taught me. I began watching his shows early on, right after Claire, my eldest, was born fourteen years ago. I love to travel, and eat, so his first show for me seemed fitting: NO Reservations. The more I watched, the more I researched. He also had a show called the Cook’s Tour that ran a few years earlier. And he wrote the narration! And I am a writer. So I began reading his books. All of it made sense…until, on one day in June, it didn’t.
With that one text, I realized this loss was only preparing me for losing Judy. So when I heard that The Loft was doing an Anthony Bourdain mural, I knew I needed to write about him again-but also Judy. She was the epitome of teacher. She did not take no for an answer, pushed students to read and re-read tough texts, and offered after school help on college essays and applications. She graded everything, thoroughly, and commented with insightful questions. She made students do the senior scrapbook so they can look back on it years later. She never allowed students to take the easy way out. She loved them, and they her. Earlier this school year I asked my seniors to fill out a notecard with their CA contact person: who is your adult here at CA? One guy still wrote, Mrs. Hillis, on his. She was a legend to CA students and staff. And while I look at the mural, daily, and see one legend looking down over us, I am also remembering Judy and her “small but mighty” nature. Both gave us so much good.
Thank you Krystal, Rodney, & Jesi-and to all my people that “know me, know me” and reached out sharing mural updates (Reynolds). I have attached a day by day snapshot for the mural. One is Rodney’s pic (I missed a day due to sickness). Every day I see this I am also lucky enough to see & Mrs. Judy Hillis and her lasting impact on this world.