Column: Leaving behind a legacy

Students at Dixie Hollins High School in St. Petersburg work in a TV control room in Debra Barnum’s class in 1999. A morning news show was sent via cable to other classrooms.
Students at Dixie Hollins High School in St. Petersburg work in a TV control room in Debra Barnum’s class in 1999. A morning news show was sent via cable to other classrooms.
Published June 16, 2016

'And when my time is up, have I done enough? Will they tell my story?"

Those are the words of Alexander Hamilton's widow, Eliza, in the stunning finale song of the hit musical Hamilton. The show is taking Broadway by storm, which was clear to anyone who watched Hamilton rake in 11 Tony Awards on Sunday. But how does a story about a man who lived more than 200 years ago, a life usually described in small chapters of history books, become a cultural phenomenon?

Because the best art reflects beauty and truth about humanity.

We all want to leave a legacy. A common refrain we hear at Aging with Dignity — where we've helped more than 25 million people communicate what means most to them near the end of life — is that people want to know that their life mattered. They want to be remembered. They want to know that their existence made the world different, even if just for one other person.

In February, Pinellas County lost a gem. Debra Barnum was a schoolteacher for nearly three decades, mostly as a drama teacher at Dixie Hollins High School. I was privileged to be one of her students. Without a shadow of doubt, my life is different today because of her influence. She taught generations of students not just how to read a script or sing show tunes; she taught confidence and she taught us to think big.

That kind of thinking led her, as the director of Florida Thespians, to move the state conference from a college campus theater to the Straz Center for Performing Arts in Tampa. She believed that teenagers belonged on a professional stage and that made us believe we belonged there, too.

No doubt, Ms. Barnum would have loved this year's Tonys, especially the poignant acceptance speeches by the Hamilton cast. She directed some of us in a version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream that she set in the 1960s, flower children and all. So something tells me that she would appreciate the sight of our founding fathers rapping their way across the Broadway stage. Good art reflects beauty, no matter the genre or style.

The day Ms. Barnum passed, a notice was posted on Facebook and word spread quickly. According to Jewish custom, she was to be buried before sundown of the next day. Something inspired me to jump into my car in Tallahassee and drive the five hours to the Largo cemetery. I arrived with just a few minutes to spare — just like high school drama rehearsals — but it was enough time to don a yarmulke and listen to the rabbi's words at her graveside. He spoke of legacy and noted the large number of people present.

Despite having retired several years ago due to illness, Ms. Barnum's legacy lived on. At her graveside, students who attended Dixie Hollins from the 1980s through the early 2000s were joined by teachers and administrators who were her colleagues. We came together to celebrate her life, to remember what she'd meant to us, and to thank her. At the rabbi's instruction, we sprinkled dirt onto the top of the casket before it was lowered. It was a beautiful sight, these former students and teachers remembering a woman who had left an indelible mark on their lives.

We hear this refrain repeated in homes, hospitals, hospices and nursing homes across America. Those who are aware that they are approaching the end of their life have a keen sense of purpose and legacy. One of the great ways that we can bring solace and peace to them is to assure each and every one of them that their life matters, that they will be remembered, and that their story will be told.

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The show must go on; and indeed the Tonys did go on, even following the horrific attack in Orlando earlier that same day. The somber circumstances of the day were a reminder that we are never guaranteed tomorrow. We can't all win Tony awards, even with the help of a great drama teacher. But we can all give an incredible gift to other people. If someone matters to you, tell them. If they made a difference in your life, tell them. If you love them, tell them. Today.

Paul Malley is president of Aging with Dignity, a nonprofit advocacy organization in Tallahassee.