As many of you already know, we have lost a brilliant scholar, teacher, mentor, parent, and friend. Dr. Jean Anyon, whose work has impacted the lives of so many, passed suddenly but peacefully on Saturday, September 7, 2013, after a long battle with cancer. While her body battled inwardly to fend off the disease that ultimately consumed her, she worked tirelessly to dedicate her time, passion, and energy to her life’s work of teaching and contributing to — and often resisting — the academic canon.
When I first looked for PhD programs in the summer of 2004, I was in the midst of doing a dance with socialism as a then-member of a large organization fighting for change in our often contradictory society, and stumbled upon Jean’s article “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.” As a teacher in a school in Harlem with few supplies and policy-driven expectations that ratcheted up with every day that passed, I was in search of a language to help me unpack, understand, and resist what I witnessed on a daily basis: the overwhelming inequities inside the classrooms of New York City and beyond. Although there were multiple programs in which I thought I could do good work, I decided to take my chances and apply only to the CUNY Graduate Center (GC), in the hopes that I could study with Jean. Her work provided the missing link to helping me gain an understanding of how things really work within the education policy world, and I was eager to get started on the project of becoming a teacher educator under her tutelage.
I’ll never forget my first meeting with Jean, prior to submitting my application. I had read her book Ghetto Schooling and several other articles, and arrived at her office armed with copious notes and stacks of ideas for what I wanted to study at the GC, based on my experience as a NYC public school teacher. I remember her office door being open, and having her invite several current students in during our meeting to meet me. She immediately put me in touch with multiple students via email, so that I might ask questions and find out more about the program in a candid way before I applied. I was so grateful for this welcome. As she would many times throughout the years to come, Jean let me and countless others know repeatedly that we are part of an enormous network of people who share a desire to create a different kind of world. Those who knew her are all part of a community that she built, from the ground up.
As the following eight years passed in what now seems like a flash, I had my ups and downs as a graduate student. Like so many other students, I suffered heartbreak and loss, battled bouts of illness and writer’s block, and struggled through many email exchanges and phone calls in which Jean convinced me that I should stay in the program when I wanted desperately to leave — when I questioned if being a scholar would also allow me to be an activist for the work I wanted to do. Although I took longer than some to complete my PhD, she was my guiding light throughout the entire process. There are a number of memories that struck me last night, as I tried to fall asleep long after bed time. Thoughts of her wisdom, humor, and high expectations for her students cycled through my mind. I thought of:
- the first time we talked about switching her email account from AOL to Google, and how she struggled (in her wry, humorous way) with accepting Facebook, Twitter, and the ways in which technology was changing communication and face-to-face contact
- it taking quite some time to convince her that researching blogs written by public school teachers was worthy of dissertation research…and when I did, she was so proud. I look often at the email that she wrote after I submitted my final draft. In three words she summed up everything I was feeling: “YOU DID IT!”
- the delight that lit up her face when she got an iPad and iPhone and admitted that she, well, could probably get used to this
- the time she had to have major back surgery and we were all so worried for her…and she unexpectedly sent me in her stead to deliver a keynote address at a new teacher retreat in Columbus, Ohio
- when she got on the bus with us to head down to DC to protest the war in Iraq
- when she asked me to coauthor an article that has since become an important piece in explaining why policies such as NCLB don’t work, “No Child Left Behind as an Anti-Poverty Measure“
- when she invited students over to her apartment, or up to her home in upstate New York, reinforcing the idea that while an educational community may start in the classroom, it travels with you wherever you go
- when she appropriately scolded me for not completing the revisions on an accepted article for Democracy and Education because I second-guessed the points I was trying to make (which would later lay the foundation for my dissertation)
- how much pride she took in the many accomplishments of her students and the faculty with whom she worked so closely
- always pushing us to think outside of our comfort zone, and above all, remain ourselves in scholarship, in the classroom, and in life in general
- how much she talked about her daughter, Jessie, who she loved with all her heart
The memories are coming at me swiftly right now, and I am overwhelmed with emotion at the loss of a woman who, in her “free” time, reached out to act as a parent when I and many others needed it most. She was more than a teacher and a contributor to the canon; more than a friend and a surrogate parent. She meant so much to me, and I hurt in her absence. But I am not alone, and gather strength from the support of the large community she built. We will continue to honor her in days to come, and reach out to one another to find ways to express the loss of someone who impacted so many of us so deeply.
Please join us at the GC in the Urban Ed lounge tomorrow, Tuesday, and Wednesday of this week, and stay tuned for news of a more formal gathering in the months to come where we can share Jean’s impact on our lives — both personally and professionally — and make plans for how to both pay forward the mentorship she so graciously offered, and ensure the immortality of her brilliant scholarly work.