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Choose Hope

Editor’s Note: We previously noted in a column that we hungered for positive contributions about people whose lives are inspirations to us.   We thank Sarah Cooper, and The Forum, the quarterly publication of Mothers and More,  in which this article was copyrighted in the May issue, for sharing this first place essay.  Sarah is the daughter of Jane and Dan Schaffer of San Diego.  If other readers have positive stories to tell about the people in their lives, we urge them to share them.

By Sarah Cooper

My mom, Jane, is the last person I thought would get brain cancer young, at 61. She seemed indomitable, a road warrior on a mission. As a high school English teacher, she wanted to prepare students to tackle freshman composition in college, largely to make up for her failing grade in English when she was 18. After raising the essay scores of students in her school, she developed a nationally known writing program and incorporated her own business, in which she gave writing workshops for English teachers and published curriculum guides. Until three years ago, airports were nothing to her. When I went to college on the East Coast, she frequently flew out to meet me “on the way home” from a workshop in Dallas or Chicago—and home was in San Diego.

Along the way, she let me, her only child, watch TV at midnight during a bout of junior high insomnia,cajoled me into writing seven drafts of my college application essay, and cooked me over-easy eggs and toast for dinner. My own children are still little, but already I’m making my older son eggs and toast after school, buttered just as she did, and trying to say “Really? What do you think about that?”rather than ask too many invasive questions when I pick him up from kindergarten. Already I sense her seemingly laissez-faire yet critically observant eye in my motherhood persona.

Although my mom retired from daily teaching in 2001, giving a farewell speech at graduation in which she spoke of classrooms as “an oasis in adolescence, islands filled with rigorous academics andrelentless caring,” a year ago she had the chance to return to this oasis when she helped some friends teach AP English literature at her old school. The students called her “Mama Jane” and wrote her a poem, in sestina form, as tribute. During part of the year, my mom got chemo treatments on Thursday and returned to the classroom on Friday. She wrote up three-page lesson guides and sent them on to me, a middle school English teacher, so I could see her mind grinding through ideas. Last summer, buoyed by her recent teaching experience, she did her first writing workshop in years for a school that already knew her. Last October, she gathered several members of her “brain trust,” a group of people she hired to do workshop presentations, to brainstorm about her writing program for two days. Watching her—as she has continued to teach teachers, high school students, and her own grandsons—there is no room for me to despair.

Although I’ve always been pretty driven, I used to find it easier to take time to do nothing, to watchTV, to fritter away a couple of hours. Now I feel as if every minute must count. The clichés about seizing the day pile up because they are so true. We don’t know, any of us, how long we’ll be here. I also have less patience when dealing with people posturing about unimportant issues. “Cut the crap,” I think in my least charitable moments. “My mom has brain cancer. What’s your excuse?” And this tough-girl stance has changed my mom’s and my relationship. I used to complain to her about my worries, the slings and arrows that crossed my path each day. Our meals and shopping trips together used to be a litany of how my life could best be analyzed and scrutinized. Now the conversation is more give and take.

Aside from watching their physical pain, this must be hardest thing about a parent’s becoming ill: You say a final goodbye to your childhood, no matter if you’ve long inhabited adulthood. I feel healthier, more mature for it. I am more stalwart with my own family, more supportive for my parents, more unflappable at work—but at the same time, there’s still a part of me that wants to be taken care of by my mom. It’s been a while since she’s held me and said, “It’ll be OK. It’ll be OK.” Because, you know,it probably won’t. She will fight this scourge as much as anyone on earth can—friends have sent her Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” because she epitomizes the poem’s theme—but eventually, like all of us, she will die. And it likely will be sooner than my child or young adult self would have hoped or imagined. But in the meantime, I’ll be damned if I don’t choose hope over despair, each minute I am awake, to do honor to her take-no-prisoners, awe-inspiring, kick-ass example.


Sarah Cooper has been a member of Pasadena, CA Chapter 252 of Mothers & More for three years and is grateful to Mothers & More for introducing her to such dynamic women and important issues. She lives near Los Angeles with her husband and two young sons, Noah and Sam. Last year Sarah published a book on teaching, Making History Mine: Meaningful Connections for Grades 5-9.

  1. Donna Colglazier
    October 24, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    Hello, Sarah,
    I attended several of your mother’s workshops over the years, and I know she contributed to any success I have had helping students write. I was back on her website to order materials for our new teachers when I found your essay. I will keep your family in my thoughts and prayers. I am saddened by your loss, but please remember that she influenced more than one generation of teachers.

  2. Wendy Hearn
    March 19, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    Dear Sarah,
    I’ve been thinking about your mom a lot lately (as I do several times a year when I use the strategies she taught me with my middle school students). I decided to see if I could find her website today when I came across an article about her passing and then followed the link to this aricle. I am deeply saddened to hear of her passing and offer you my sincerest of sympathy. Your mom was a true inspiration to me. Her passion was contagious and I thoroughly loved each and every time I heard her speak. Our school had her out to train us on several occasions and I was also lucky enough to spend a week in San Diego learning from her at a “trainer of trainers” type institute in the summer of 2006. That week is a definite highlight in my career and has impacted my teaching in so many ways. There are several things about that week that I’ll never forget, but the one I will share with you is how she lit up when speaking about how becoming a grandmother had changed her life. She absolutely loved it and that is one gift (among many, I’m sure) that you gave to your mom. Your mom was truly one-in-a-million and I will never forget her.

  3. beth
    March 10, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    Hi Sarah,

    I was looking on-line for your mom’s email address to update her on how her reading program is going in my classes when I came across this article. I am so very saddened to learn of her death. Your mom was a tremendous inspiration to me, and flattered me by remembering tidbits about my life–even a couple of years after I mentioned them to her. She was an outstanding educator in every sense of the word. Those of us who studied under her were fortunate indeed.

    My condolences to your entire family.

  4. Gina Olsen
    February 19, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    Dear Sarah,
    I was a student and huge fan of your mom in the early 1980s. She was a beautiful person and compassionate friend – even to naive students who thought they knew everything. Your mom’s classroom was truly an oasis for her AP students. She was a mentor, a friend, and a little bit of a mom to all of her students. I’m sorry for your loss of her, and even though I just discovered she is gone, I miss her, too.
    God bless,
    Gina Gonzalez Olsen
    Kindergarten Teacher

  5. Marilyn White
    February 7, 2011 at 7:06 pm

    February 7th, 2011
    Dear Sarah,

    Earlier today I was explaining to a school principal that her teachers would do well to acquaint themselves with the Schaffer method of building a paragraph. I offered to help explain it, searched for updated material on the web, and found your essay. Your words show a deep understanding of your mother and her importance to you and to the teachers whose lives she crossed.

    Since the mid 90’s – when I attended several workshops in Dallas – I have praised the method for the confidence it gives both to students and to teachers.
    But the method would have been dry and lifeless without Jane’s sense of humor in presenting the material. I remember her fondly. Her’s is a fine legacy!

  6. Cindy Dean
    September 12, 2010 at 1:54 am

    Maybe it was during day two of my high school English teaching career in Sacramento, that I realized I did not have the slightest idea of where or how to begin teaching analytical writing. Thankfully, shortly after school began, I was invited to a Jane Schaffer seminar hosted by my school, presented by Jane Schaffer, herself. After being highly entertained and inspired by your mom’s hilarious classroom stories and obvious love for writing and kids, I left that all-day Saturday training feeling empowered AND armed with a packet of practical materials I could put to immediate use. Little did I know that that would be the first of many opportunities to learn from her in ongoing district trainings. Jane gave me a place to start teaching one of the most challenging skills there is to teach and a working vocabulary to do it. There isn’t a year that goes by that I don’t use strategies I first learned from her. Yes, Jane, writing IS thinking.

  7. L. Pfardresher
    September 10, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    Your mother was a passionate educator who gave teachers the tool box to transform paralyzed writers into empowered essayists. I will be forever grateful for the influence Jane had on my professional life. It was a privilege to know her. She will be greatly missed.

    No one ever loves us like our mother.

    My heartfelt condolences to you and your family.

  8. Tom Hedges
    September 8, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    I met your mother at an English conference here in San Diego. My wife, Cindy, who introduced your mother and I, is the AP/Seminar English teacher at Point Loma High. This was many years ago when Jane was still teaching at West Hills. In fact, at the initial meeting it was at my suggestion that she should have a website to promote her business. A month or so had passed when she contacted me and I then arranged for her to have a meet with Jose Rosa, President of RosArt. The website became a reality. She understood the power of the web immediately. In fact, her knowledge of the web and how it works grew exponentially. We were very proud of her. One of our best (web savvy) clients. And, a good friend to all of us at RosArt. It was with great sadness that the Hedges family heard of her passing. Our deepest sympathies go to you and your family.

    Tom, Cindy and Thomas Hedges

  9. Pam
    September 6, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    Sarah, your mother taught our two sons at West Hills HS. She not only gave them a strong foundation in writing, but also bestowed her wisdom concerning life, in general. I always appreciated the “dose of reality” she gave her students. She was a very impressive women, who influenced far more young people than she probably realized. Take care.

  10. Monique
    August 26, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    Thank you for this beautiful and moving essay. I first met your mother almost ten years ago at a workshop in Dallas. I remember laughing out loud at her wicked wit and feeling simply joyful and inspired by everything she taught us. By the end of that day, we all felt like old friends. I’ve been to several of her other workshops over the years, and at every one we are giggling, sharing stories, but above all, learning. Her passion and intelligence and wisdom live on in all of us as we share those lessons with our students. And flights of angels sing her to her rest.

  11. Catherine
    August 25, 2010 at 10:23 am

    Sarah, Kathleen Conway shared your essay with us at Xavier. I have not worked here long enough to have had the pleasure of meeting your mom, but I certainly have heard many praises for her and her teaching! I wanted you to know that your essay tribute to your mother touched me deeply. I, too, want to make every second count. For my family, for my colleagues, and for my students, you remind me to be an example of choosing hope over despair, love over unkindness, and peace over turmoil. You and your mother have made a positive difference in the lives of others. Thank you for that.


  12. Kathleen Conway
    August 25, 2010 at 8:13 am

    Sarah, your mother has touched countless lives and has left this world a better place for having been in it. We at Xavier College Preparatory are so grieved by her passing. She has been in our prayers for the past months, and we will continue to pray for you and for your family. Please know that we loved your mom very much. She inspired us with her enthusiasm for teaching, her practical wisdom, and her indomitable spirit. May the angels lead her into paradise.

  13. Gretchen Polnac
    August 24, 2010 at 10:36 am

    What a lovely tribute to your mother, Sarah. She has always been a friend and mentor to this Texas gal. I shall miss her, but her legacy continues in classrooms across this nation.

    Bless you and your family as you navigate this journey to acceptance.

  1. August 22, 2010 at 11:16 am

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