The phrase “Continuing in the Word” has taken on a new aspect in the last two weeks.
As many of you already know, our writing instructor, Jill Byington, lost her battle with breast cancer on December 8, 2010. Her students and their parents had a chance to work with Jill and understand what her loss means to Scholars Online, but it seems fitting to share something of Jill with the wider SO community.
I met Jill in the mid 1990s, when we were both working for Boeing. I had to get some documentation in order for the project I was coding on, and her job as a technical writer was to reformat it for presentation on this new-fangled computer-based system called the Boeing Internal Web. She occasionally offered suggestions to correct grammar and improve the clarity as well. As people do, we focused first on our assigned tasks, but then during coffee breaks and lunch, branched out into other discussions, sharing our passions for teaching, writing well, and trying to be good mothers.
We finished our project and Jill went on to other assignments inside and outside Boeing, and I didn’t hear from her for several years until an email arrived at my non-Boeing address. She remembered that I was homeschooling our kids, and wanted to talk about homeschooling for her own son. We exchanged emails at irregular intervals, and then we got the one announcing that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I told her that I had decided to walk in the Komen Breast Cancer 3Day in 2005 (now Komen for the Cure) and wrote her name on my shirt, along with other breast cancer victims that were relatives and friends or friends of friends.
The timing of that email was profound: Scholars Online Academy of ISLAS was in the process of becoming Scholars Online, a separate institution. We wanted to offer a full high school curriculum and had found several teachers who committed to teach Latin, Greek, literature, mathematics, history, and science for us, but we desperately needed a writing program.
In her interview of April 30, 2009 with “Be the Star You Are”, Jill said that she found out some friends of hers were starting an online school and she asked if she could teach for them. I remember it somewhat differently. I was training for the 3Day, and Jill agreed to meet me at Jamba Juice in Factoria to cheer me on my way home. I was anxious for the meeting because Bruce and I had talked long about what we wanted in a writing program and even more about what we wanted in our writing program instructor. We needed somebody who was an excellent writer (Jill was), someone who had taught writing already (Jill had, in several contexts and for different age levels), who was willing to take on new technology (which Jill obviously delighted in doing), and who saw her calling to teach as part of her Christian ministry (which was central to Jill’s whole approach to teaching). In short, we wanted Jill, and I spent five miles working out a fine speech to convince her to join us. I recall that it involved begging, if necessary.
Once we ordered our drinks and sat down to wait for them, I rushed into my speech. I said that we were starting an online school and that we needed a writing program and that was as far as I got. Jill launched into possibilities: she could start with a summer course as a try-out, and a one year-long course while she figured out the possibilities of the medium. She was undaunted by the fact that we couldn’t promise much by way of pay — it was the possibility of teaching and students that excited her.
Bruce and I set up an account and a dummy Moodle course for her to develop her course materials, pointed her at the documentation we had available on the Moodle, and went back to trying to learn it ourselves. At one point Jill ran into a problem and asked for help. I had no idea what she was talking about. It was then we realized Jill’s propensity for playing with a new technology and making it work for her. She had discovered aspects of the Moodle delivery system I didn’t even realize existed, and formatted her courses to make the best use of its asynchronous and cooperative learning features.
By the time Scholars Online opened its virtual doors, Jill had her offerings ready. Her courses were organized, well thought out, and demanded the best of her students. Parents loved working with her because she took their concerns seriously and answered them thoughtfully. Students loved working with her because she could “chide with charity”: she had that remarkable gift of being able to correct and encourage in the same sentence. We loved having her teach for us because we could see real improvement in the compositions her students submitted to our courses, which made our jobs immeasurably easier. At the end of that first year she was bubbling with enthusiasm and plans for a three-year core program on writing for college-bound students, a basic summer refresher in practical grammar, a short course on advertising, and others on playwriting, poetry, creative short stories, even rhetoric and style.
For Scholars Online’s first three years, Jill taught classes and I carried her name on my shirt, right next to my mom’s, in each fall’s 3Day event . Then in April 2009 came the disturbing report that her cancer might have returned. At first our emails were hopeful exchanges of contingency plans, but by mid-July it was clear that prognosis was not good, the cancer had spread, and the aggressive treatment proposed meant Jill would be too exhausted to teach any courses for the 2009-2010 academic year. We told her we’d deal with the schedule changes and we did, canceling some classes and asking other teachers to take over “for the year”, still hoping that Jill would respond to treatment this round as she had four years earlier, and be back to teach for us this year.
So began a new phase of our relationship. In a group mailing in July 2009, Jill wrote “I haven’t arrived at the Oasis of the Heroic Cancer Patient yet, and quite possibly never will. The truth is that I either walk through this or I die, and my current plan is to complain loudly with each step. I met a couple of Heroic Cancer Patients when I was in treatment last time. Annoying creatures. Completely slappable.” She started a blog for her friends, and the list grew to over 7000 readers who followed her battles. She wrote about them with wicked humor that kept us laughing and demonstrated that, despite her protests, she did indeed exhibit the more admirable aspects of heroism. For a while it looked as though she were gaining on the cancer, and we made plans for her to teach at least one class in 2010/2011. But in August 2010 she wrote a long, grim personal email to us, concluding “I can’t make any promises for the future at all. I wish I could. I share a lot on my blog, but I hesitate to share too much because of former students and so forth. I don’t know if this kind of reality comes through there, but I thought you needed to know. I have been honored to teach through Scholars Online.”
It is we who were honored, and we who were blessed by her witness of faith and her example of courage and grace under fire. And though I will miss her terribly, I rejoice in the thought that this teacher who loved words so much is now healed and at peace with the Teacher who is the Word.