Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Tribute to Rachel Troxell

I met Rachel Troxell in 1993 when she was still Rachel Levin and we were at Northwestern getting our masters in secondary ed. We took Dr. Boyle's methods class together and I liked her immediately. She was funny and smart and we became friends, the best friend I made that entire year of grad school. We created a kick-ass project on teaching democracy with our mutual friend Sue and Rachel celebrated with me on my 29th birthday and the next year, my 30th, when we were both employed as full-time teachers. Rachel was five years younger, she had entered grad school directly from undergrad, and I felt so old around her, (especially on the heights of the climbing wall she got me to try,) though I never felt anywhere near as wise. You could tell she would be a talented teacher.

The summer of '94, Rachel invited me and Randy to a cookout with her new beau at his place near the University of Chicago. The guy was someone she had met while rock climbing. "He makes video games," said Rachel. "One called Marathon..." This meant nothing to me. Jason Jones seemed a nice enough guy when I met him - I think I made a pie that he liked or I liked his, I forget, but I do remember that Randy was practically trembling when he got the odd chance to meet one of his idols. Rachel and I laughed about it all later, these boys and their games, like we laughed at the younger and sillier boys we taught, both of us in our first roller-coaster years of teaching English at parochial schools - Rachel at Solomon Schechter, me at Gordon Tech. We shared stories of our favorites, Rachel making me laugh so hard at her crush (I so understood) on a sweet sixth grader whom she called "Rhymes with SchmIvan" in the teachers' lounge. Just the way she said it with her irresistibly pretty smile cracked me up.

We took another class together at Northwestern during the summer - it was a course on African oral lit traditions and Rachel's insight and wisdom made it a mind-blowing experience for me. We watched Souleyman Cisse's film Yeelen from the country of Mali - it was about magic and sacrifice and unlike any Western film I had ever seen. I remember so well one moment in class, a moment I have treasured, Rachel and I were examining a cryptic African proverb, teasing out the meaning of its lines, like "My brother walks beside me. He is dark and I am light. He never leaves me..." On and on, it went, rich and obscure poetic imagery that had us stumped. Until we got it. At once. Both of us. "Duality," we said, nearly simultaneously. The passage was about looking at the world and defining it in terms of binary oppositions, rather than multitudes. It was thrilling - not for what we had found at the heart of the knot, but for the moment of discovery. Yeelen means "brightness." A light dawned. Working with Rachel Levin made me feel brilliant and now I am sad because her light has gone.

Reading Rachel's blog of her battle with breast cancer, from her diagnosis at the age of 34 to the end, is both terrible and wonderful. Terrible because the miracle of being reunited with her only happens in my mind as I read. But also wonderful because I can hear her voice again, I am inspired once again by her tremendous courage, strength, optimism and serenity, the depths of which I saw only hints of when we knew each other in our twenties. She had gone on from teaching to do amazing things, including form the LympheDIVAs company which outfits women with wicked stylish options to treat their lymphedema, a frequent side effect of breast cancer treatment. Her loving parents and her business partner continue her work of making women feel good about themselves, a work for which Rachel had a great and special talent.

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