This post was written by NCTE member and NCTE Past President Kylene Beers.
On September 12, 2021, I finished reading The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. I could have finished it days earlier, but didn’t. I didn’t want it to end because I knew that after finishing this book, I wouldn’t have any others to read that were suggested to me by my longtime friend and colleague, Teri Lesesne.
I wasn’t ready for Teri to be gone, and for me, finishing that book meant realizing, yes, she really is gone. I knew that after that last book, there would no more books I picked up to read because Teri said, “Just read it.” I looked through my journal where I keep notes of everything, looking for a book Teri had mentioned that I had not yet read. I wanted one more suggestion that emerged during any of our long phone conversations. But, no. There were no more.
Dr. Teri Lesesne, lovingly known as “The Book Lady” and “Professor Nana,” died at her home on Wednesday August 31, 2021, surrounded by her family, a family she spent her life loving and nurturing. When Cali, one of her granddaughters, sent me a text that afternoon saying, “She’s gone,” I remembered a line from The Midnight Library that I loved when I first read it and now hated due to its truth: “The Midnight Library is a library of possibility. And death is the opposite of possibility.”
And the possibility of one more conversation, one more laugh, one more book recommendation was now gone. I hated it. Teri lived her life as a generous-hearted being who cared for her family and friends deeply and made a life of connecting kids to books. But then I remembered another line: the Midnight Library is “filled with shelves that go on forever and ever.” And so quickly, I saw Teri, eyes ablaze staring through big glasses, Crocs and brightly striped socks on her feet, sporting very short blue or red or orange hair, standing at those shelves and smiling. Cancer only thought it had won. Cancer only opened the door to those infinite shelves of books. Seeing Teri standing at those shelves, knowing that she had taught us all her lessons oh so well, I realized her spirit is too untamed, her voice too loud, her passion too fiery for any of us to ever really lose her. Her legacy burns brightly through our lives.
Yes, Teri was fiercely opinionated, wildly independent, and willing to wear purple hair long before she was ever considered anywhere old enough to do such a thing (or so the poet Jenny Joseph would say). She laughed quickly, squinted her eyes and dismissed stupidity with a glance when stupidity was indeed looking us in the face, and never, never ever, backed away one bit from teaching, preaching, and celebrating the power of a book in a person’s life. She understood that books offer ways out and ways in; ways to become and ways to celebrate being; ways to grow beyond who we are into people we didn’t even know we had dreamed of becoming.
Long before audio books were keeping us company as we drive here and there, she was championing them; before graphic novels were winning awards, she was putting them in teachers’ hands and suggesting they make their way into students’ hands; before any of us had discovered novels in verse, Teri was suggesting which ones would be winning awards. She was a voracious reader and her reading became the fodder for her own books, her articles, her columns, her blog posts, her keynote speeches, and her many, many workshops attended, over the years, by tens of thousands of people. And that work turned into recognition from national and state organizations and being named a Distinguished Professor of Library Science, and now a Distinguished Professor Emerita of Library Science from Sam Houston State University.
The recognition was deserved and well earned, but the awards were not the most important to Teri. What was most important to her was talking with anyone about all those books she spent her life reading. She answered a question sent to her over Facebook just days before she died, helping another teacher decide which books to offer a kid who had not yet found that special book that would turn him into a reader. I suspect that brief exchange meant much to Teri those last days. You see, if you were near Teri, at some point, the conversation would turn to her family, her cat, and books she was recently enjoying. She wanted to help all of us—parents, teachers, librarians, administrators—understand that reading is not about acquiring a certain set of skills; nor is it about reaching a particular Lexile level. Reading is a way of life; reading sends us on an exploration of wondering, discovering, growing, and doing.
Which takes me back to The Midnight Library, a book about all the lives we might live and what it is that makes the life we do live so special. After over forty years of friendship with Teri, I now hold on tightly to her final book she offered to me and share with you what Teri told me about this book: “I’m not going to tell you anything except you must read it. Really. Just read it for me.” I did, dear friend. Thank you for this one and for all the thousands of titles you have offered me and others. Yes, thank you for a life well shared. Now enjoy those infinite shelves with infinite books that offer so many other lives to live.
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