Things My Teacher Taught Me: In Memoriam
Yesterday, I received some shocking news that a woman, Nicki Alexopoulos, who had been teacher, mentor, and friend to me was shot and killed by her own son who then shot another family friend (now in hospital recovering from multiple gunshots) who’d been visiting before turning the gun on himself.
There is not a word for how horrific this information was to me and to everyone who ever knew her.
As Anne Lamott said so eloquently, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.”
No one embodied that better than Nicki.
She was in the process of writing about her own pain and heartbreak as a survivor of domestic violence, and in telling her story, she was breathtakingly honest.
But when I think of Nicki, I have nothing but warmth in the memory. I know I am not alone in that.
I’m a writer now, and I believe she is in large part responsible for my willingness to follow that dream.
In English class, she taught me the importance of research and citation. She taught me to think critically. She trained me to look at literature with empathy and to try to understand the actions of people who are nothing like myself. She had high standards and made us all accountable. Yet she was one of the most understanding and kindhearted people I’ve ever known.
Nicki’s lessons weren’t solely about the subject, however. Just as literature itself is an examination of the human condition, her lessons often gave me just as much information about how to be a strong independent human being as they did about the work we were studying.
She taught me to listen to my own voice, to question everything, not to flinch in the face of things that are painful or hard to examine, to speak my truth even if other people didn’t agree, to be discerning and thoughtful and honest in my writing and in my life. She taught me that it’s okay to be different. In fact, difference is strength.
I think she also knew that I had a strong drive for perfection, one that could be detrimental if I let it control me. She showed me the importance of celebrating my accomplishments, but also celebrating every step that lead to it.
This afternoon as I contemplated the enormity of the impact she had on my life, I came upon this video by happenstance, and it really spoke to me in relation to her as well.
These words struck me hardest.
“The whole point of dancing is the dance…We thought of life by analogy with a journey, with a pilgrimage which had a serious purpose at the end. And the thing was to get to that end. Success, or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.” – Alan Watts
Truly, while the tragedy of her death…the way she died…is shocking in the extreme, I was reminded that her life wasn’t about how she died. It was about how she LIVED.
Nicki’s life was a dance, and she invited everyone to get up and take part.
The best way that I can see to process the loss of her is to celebrate what she gave to so many people, year after year.
And so, Nicki, I’m going to dance.
I’m going to do the things I told you I was going to do back when I was a dorky thirteen year old afraid of my own voice. I’m going to be the person you showed me was possible. And in doing so, I celebrate you and the gifts you gave me. I’m going to live a life I think you would be proud of helping shape.
I am so grateful I had the chance to tell you what you meant to me. I only wish I could tell you all over again. Thank you. The dance you started will continue all my life.