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De Anza High teacher’s words of wisdom resonate after death

By Theresa Harrington
Friday, January 3rd, 2014 at 5:53 pm in Education, West Contra Costa school district.

Retired De Anza HS teacher Karen Mason in Washington DC for President Obama's inauguration with former student Anka Lee.

Retired De Anza HS teacher Karen Mason in Washington DC for President Obama’s inauguration with former student Anka Lee.

During the past two months, I have been working on a Hometown Hero story about Karen Mason, a retired English teacher who worked at De Anza High in Richmond for 35 years and touched the lives of hundreds of students, their families and the surrounding El Sobrante community. Mason died Dec. 31, after battling cancer.

Although I only met Mason twice, I was touched by her selfless concern for others. In November, I interviewed Mason in her El Sobrante home. I saw her again Dec. 2 at a West Contra Costa school board meeting, where she spoke out against bullying.

On both occasions, I was impressed by Mason’s warmth and ability to connect with people. Her story will appear Tuesday in this newspaper, including quotes from many who knew her.

Below are excerpts from our interview that I couldn’t fit into the story, which reveal Mason’s caring spirit and determination to do what was right for her students and the world.

ON OPENING HER HEART TO OTHERS:
“You get to ‘adopt’ all kinds of people in your life if you’re open to it. My husband and I shared a mutual feeling that there were kids who needed safe places to come. One of the greatest gifts you can give is to listen.”

ON INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION:
“I don’t go on Facebook. I want personal communication. I’ve never texted. I think if you want to talk, come on by.”

“The gift of communication — the gift of humanity — is exchanged when you really can look somebody in the eye and say something truthful.”

ON THE DEATH OF HER SON, REID:
“The saddest story that my husband and I have is 12 years ago, our son was killed in an auto accident. There’s no milestone day when you lose a child. Grief is for the rest of your life. We feel blessed we had our son for 25 years. We’ve talked to other parents who have lost children to say, ‘You can get through it. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be great days of pain, and lots of it.’”

ON A POSITIVE ATTITUDE
“I’ve led my life saying, ‘Be positive today. Get up and reach out to others and stay focused on what’s really, really the best thing for you and for everybody else.”

ADVICE TO NEW TEACHERS;
“I taught a classroom management course for student teachers. I would say, ‘If you love your subject matter more than your students, don’t teach. You’d better walk into that classroom and say, no matter what, I love those kids.’”

ON STANDING UP FOR STUDENTS:
“I used to get up in the morning and say, ‘What are you going to do today that’s going to be good for kids?’ And if grown-ups got in the way, ‘Oh, well.’”

ON BEING VIEWED AS A ‘MOM’ OR ‘GRANDMA’ BY OTHERS:
“I feel really privileged that people would let themselves be vulnerable. What humanity needs more than anything is to recognize that we’re pretty much born vulnerable and it’s okay to walk your path with others — reach out to others.”

ON RELATIONSHIPS WITH STUDENTS:
“I would say, ‘I know this is hard. You can’t pass if you give up on yourself. I can invest in you, but if you don’t invest in yourself, then what’s going to happen?’”

“You never get more pressure than when you’re a teenager because everybody thinks they know what’s best for you — your teachers, your parents, your siblings — and they’re going to tell you. So, spend a little time figuring it out yourself. That’s hard work.”

ON HER LEGACY:
“I like to think that maybe God’s gift was to be open. My mom cultivated plants. I said, ‘Maybe I have the ability to cultivate people.’”

“When the end of life comes, I hope my legacy is that people always felt and knew that they were loved and that they could trust me that I had integrity. I like to think that — having stayed in the same old duck pond — that some of my fellow ducks remember that.”

“I don’t have a bucket list. I just pretty much tried to do stuff that was important. I’m really at peace. I’m going to get to the other side of the clouds and the view will be just as fantastic.”

It’s easy to see why Mason was so dearly loved.

To those who knew Mason: What memories of her stand out most for you?

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  • Vindex

    Sounds like a remarkable teacher and person. My prayers for her husband after losing his wife.

  • tmharrington

    The family plans a celebration of Mason’s life on Feb. 15. The Hometown Hero story is now slated to run on Wednesday.