Chapel Hill teacher faces death by preaching tolerance
Posted June 10, 2014
Chapel Hill, N.C. — A Chapel Hill high school teacher diagnosed with a fatal disease hasn't stopped teaching or living life to the fullest, and her students say the impact of two recent lessons will leave lasting impressions.
Vivian Connell was diagnosed in March with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative nerve condition commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The average life expectancy for someone with the illness is two to five years.
As she faces death, Connell said Tuesday that she wants to spend each day spreading messages against intolerance, inequity and racism.
"I think it gives validity to my life and helps me make peace with death knowing that I am doing something to contribute while I'm here," she said.
As part of The Butterfly Project, which aims to create 1.5 million ceramic butterflies worldwide to memorialize each child who died in the Holocaust, Connell recently had her Phoenix Academy students paint ceramic butterflies to accompany cards with the photos and stories of children killed by the Nazis.
The project came on the heels of a class trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
"It was very emotional seeing the pictures, actual photos," sophomore Erika Ventura said.
Sophomore Caleb Penny has worn a Star of David pendant since the museum trip even though he's not Jewish.
"I feel like it touched me so much," Penny said of the experience, "I just decided to get this because it means a lot to me."
"I hope they leave with the sort of fervent belief that no one is more or less human than anyone else," Connell said of her goals from the trip and the Butterfly Project.
She is looking for a place interested in creating a permanent memorial with the 180 butterflies from Phoenix Academy, and she plans to donate a bench for that space with a memorial plaque inscribed by her family.
"The best thing that can happen as you face your mortality is to be told by other people you had a positive impact on their lives, and I have that," she said.