Student and teacher reconnect through the Jewish Pavilion

 


It was January 2005. I walked into my classroom for the first session of the semester for the graduate seminar on “Women and Public Policy” that I was teaching. Eight women and four men were enrolled. As we went around the room making introductions each student revealed unique qualities and experiences. I am fortunate that today, more than 11 years later, I maintain contact with several students from that seminar. For most of those students, we have kept in touch for academic reasons—these students have needed letters of recommendation for advanced graduate or law school, or asked me to serve on their MA thesis committees, Ph.D. dissertation committees, or both.

For one student, though, our post-course relationship was quite different. Her name was Merlene Frank. Merlene and I maintained contact after the course ended but not because she needed some form of academic support. This particular student had decided to return to school for one semester in spring 2005 to take two graduate political science courses, mine and an independent study focusing on Congress and the legislative process. She already had a graduate degree and was teaching the introductory U.S. government course at Valencia Community College (now Valencia College). She made the weekly commute from the town of Lady Lakes in The Villages to take my course as well as to fulfill her teaching responsibilities at the Valencia West Campus on Kirkman Road. She was in her early 70s, was well prepared for class each week, took an active role in class discussion and submitted impeccable papers. She strongly supported the notion of women playing an active role in politics, and showed herself quite capable of seeing how women in politics could be understood through multiple theoretical, institutional, social, and policy lenses.


A few months after the course ended, in the summer of 2005, she invited me to her home in The Villages to present a short lecture to a group of her interested friends who met on a regular basis. It was at that meeting that I had the chance to meet Merlene’s husband, Bill, who was just as sweet and hospitable as his wife.

Over the next several years Merlene and I kept in touch sporadically through e-mail. She forwarded articles that she thought I would find interesting or sent me a quick note wishing me a Happy Chanukah in the winter or a Happy New Year in the fall.

In the summer of 2010 my not-yet-stepdaughter Rachael was taking the introduction to U.S. Government online at Valencia as part of her BS in Athletic Training program at UCF. Merlene was her professor. How impressive. A woman now in her late 70s had learned the technology necessary to teach online classes, and was doing an excellent job. As I write this, I myself am taking a break from the many hours spent over the last few weeks preparing my online courses to start the fall 2016 semester at UCF. After teaching online since 2000 I continue to be frustrated by various idiosyncrasies of online learning management systems. For a person like Merlene, who grew up without computers, let alone the Internet, to continue to push herself so that she would continue to teach at the top of her game is particularly impressive.


A few years ago my husband, Paul, and I were setting up for the annual Passover seder that we lead at Brookdale Island Lake on behalf of the Jewish Pavilion. Merlene approached us and welcomed us to the event. What a nice surprise! Since I had last seen or heard from Merlene, she and Bill had moved to Brookdale. We had no idea that we would see each other. Each year thereafter, including this year, Paul and I had the chance to see Merlene and Bill. I always made a point of introducing her during the seder. I introduced her as my student although many believed that our relationship was the opposite—that I was the student and Merlene the professor. It was always a fun and lighthearted experience to share this information with the other seder participants. She was a professor, of course, just not mine. She was my stepdaughter’s professor, though, and Merlene would ask Paul and me each year at the Jewish Pavilion seder how Rachael was doing in her bachelor’s program at UCF, and more recently, her graduate program at Stonybrook University in New York.


This year Merlene sat at the table closest to us and clapped and sang along with the seder that Paul and I were leading. Because Merlene, Bill and their friends at the table sang so loudly and with such enthusiasm (being led by Merlene, of course), and in such close proximity to Paul and me, I called them my “Pips” (I guess that made me Gladys Knight?).

Seeing Merlene each year at Brookdale when Paul and I lead the Jewish Pavilion’s Passover seder has made deeply personal for me the Jewish Pavilion’s mission to establish Jewish connections for elder-care residents in senior-living communities. It is only because of the Jewish Pavilion that I have been able to reconnect with Merlene every year, and for such a happy occasion as the Passover seder. So many people believe that the Jewish Pavilion works for the sake of Jewish elder-care residents. Yet this experience, along with so many others, has taught me that the Jewish Pavilion benefits the volunteers as well. Paul and I look forward to conducting the Passover seder at Brookdale Island Lake each year. Getting to visit with Merlene, and seeing how much she enjoyed participating, made my anticipation of the event even better.

I was saddened to learn a few weeks back that Merlene Frank had died. And it was through the Jewish Pavilion that I learned of her passing. I am saddened for her family’s loss, including Bill and her children, and sad for myself. I am certain that Merlene was as transfixed by the presidential election this year as I am especially because of the dimensions focusing on women’s political opportunities and women’s issues.

Rest in peace, Merlene. Enjoy how the election unfolds from wherever you are. I give you an “A” for bringing so much to so many—to me as my student, to the other students in our 2005 “Women and Public Policy” graduate seminar, to your Valencia students, including my own stepdaughter, and to your friends in The Villages, at Brookdale and any other places you touched with your spirit and example of being an active and engaged lifelong learner.

 

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