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(Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of Jamie Weil’s blog post about Alex Woodman, a West Valley High School teacher who died recently. You can read Weil’s full blog post about Woodman here.)
Alex Woodman was my son’s favorite teacher.
A few weeks ago, Alex Woodman died suddenly at 59. It’s taken time to process, for me and for the whole community. There are no words to describe this man, but because he loved stories, and words are where I go when I’m trying to understand things, I offer these up.
My son, Jordan, described Mr. Woodman like this:
He was the guy who would brighten up anybody’s day. He didn’t have that teacher vibe. He was about more than just math. He was a friend that taught every kid to push hard and never give up through rough times. He always had a story to tell.
My son hates math. Mr. Woodman’s math class was the first (and only) math class that became his favorite class. That happened freshman year when things were new making Mr. Woodman’s guidance ever more angelic. He was the type of teacher always available to speak or email a parent immediately. He was the type of teacher that was always kind to his students before anything else. He’s the type of teacher that is still teaching, even when he’s not physically present on the planet. He was unprecedented in a level of kindness he brought (and continues to bring) to a space.
Physically, he was a presence. Standing somewhere around 6’5?, his bald head and bright smile often donned sunglasses and a motorcycle helmet. His room was plastered with posters from rock bands and his was the classroom where Pink Floyd could often be heard pouring out the door. At BTSN, you could feel the presence of inspiration living in his room. Kids would just hang out there outside of class because it felt like a safe place to be.
Mr. Woodman had an impact on the community that can be seen loud and clear since his passing. As students found out what had happened, notes were plastered on his door and a shrine erected. One student planted a tree. We were in LA and heard immediately through the teen texting trail what had happened as students reached out to each other for comfort in the wake of the news over spring break.
The impact was so strong, counselors were brought in to help students on the first day back to school. My son spent all second period with his amazing counselor, Rob Swendiman, talking Mr. Woodman stories to ease the pain.
Every kid that passed through my house (and there’s a lot that visit) always said Mr. Woodman was there favorite teacher. He was a gifted storyteller. In his honor, I share with you a story from our dinner table while my kids were in his class.
A few years back, we housed a German exchange student, David. Nearly every night, David and Jordan had a “Woodman Story.” They would laugh hysterically as they tried to recount the details. Finally, one day David just taped it with his phone and brought the recording back. We all sat around the table, eating, listening and laughing, as Mr. Woodman talked about car chases and days working at Angelo’s Pizza in Redding. My husband and I both looked at each other. Mr. Woodman had a way of sneaking the math in when the kids thought they were just listening to stories. What an incredible gift.
“I want to take math with Mr. Woodman,” I remember thinking.
Other stories fill a Facebook feed called “Remembering Mr. Woodman” that Mr. Woodman’s son, Derek, created for people to share stories.
These words and stories (and there are hundreds more) show that. He’s the teacher every teacher–alas, human–should aspire to be at their core. And his equation seemed quite simple: love first. In all the stories left on the feed, it was clear that kids felt seen and loved, some for the first time. We may not see him physically, but there is no doubt the gifts Mr. Woodman gave are still with us.
One final story. Last Wednesday, following a yoga class and preceding a spiritual practitioner class where we would be studying how different cultures/religions look at death and dying, I cleared my mind and listened to the teacher lead us to a meditative moment in shavasana. All was quiet as I lay on the floor in the dark, eyes closed. Suddenly, I saw Alex Woodman backlighted in the brightest light you can imagine. His smile beamed, his arms raised up, and his head tilted to the sky with the feeling of “All You Need is Love” in the air. The music still in him. I smiled, tears leaking out the corners of my eyes, pondering how he embodied the love that changes things.
Of course, Alex Woodman. You are an angel. It’s so obvious now.
Celebrate the music Alex Woodman gave to the world this Sunday, April 17–his 60th birthday–at West Valley High. Get there early. It’s going to be a sell out.