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Chance meeting, remembrances spur MIHS students into documentary limelight

Students in Jan Sayers’ English class took part in a focus group for a PBS documentary. They include: freshman Lewis Radow, junior Miriam Zawadski, freshman Viraj Parikh, Jan Sayers, sophomore Jeff Lindquist, junior Jared Thomas and senior Lauren Ito. - Contributed Photo
Students in Jan Sayers’ English class took part in a focus group for a PBS documentary. They include: freshman Lewis Radow, junior Miriam Zawadski, freshman Viraj Parikh, Jan Sayers, sophomore Jeff Lindquist, junior Jared Thomas and senior Lauren Ito.
— image credit: Contributed Photo

For 13 years, Jan Sayers’ freshman English class at Mercer Island High School has read and written about Mitch Albom’s book “Tuesdays with Morrie.” It’s a book that the students come to love and appreciate during their time at MIHS.

The book inspires such a strong connection that even years after reading it in Sayers’ class, its words and lessons stick with students. Which is why, when MIHS grad Andrew Prince ran into a former colleague, Richard Harris, and Harris mentioned he was working on a documentary about the teachings of “Tuesdays with Morrie,” Prince thought of Sayers.

As things turned out, Harris, a director of programming for National Public Radio (NPR) and a former producer at ABC News, was working on a documentary on how the book has changed lives and how the teachings that Morrie Schwartz left with his former student, Albom, have continued since the book came out. The 30 minute documentary “Morrie” on the Inside E Street show, will be shown on PBS nationally on June 5.

Harris had helped produce a three-part series for ABC’s Nightline titled “Morrie: Lessons on Living,” which aired in 1995 and spurred Albom to reconnect with Schwartz, who was dying of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Those visits turned into the book which Sayers’ class reads every year.

Following Prince’s talk with Harris, things moved fast, and suddenly Sayers was debating how to choose six of her students to take part in a focus group for the documentary.

“All of this is like fate,” said Sayers.

On Tuesday, April 20, two filmmakers came to the school to film those six students as they discussed the book and what each took away from it.

“It’s kind of just coincidence we got involved,” said junior Jared Thomas. “I was excited and honored to be a part of it.”

Junior Miriam Zawadski said what she took away from the book was the fact that relationships live on, no matter where the person might be.

“In everything you do, relationships are permanent,” she said.

Sayers said she chose the six of Zawadski, Thomas, freshmen Viraj Parikh and Lewis Radow, sophomore Jeff Lindquist and senior Lauren Ito because they each had a strong reaction to the book in her class.

“I think it’s Morrie’s aphorisms that struck me the most,” said Parikh. “I really like that it related to us personally.”

During the hour-long film session, which took place in the high school library, the students talked about how the book still applies to their lives today.

“It reinforced the message that people might have lost as they get carried away with their lives and work. The book serves as a positive reminder to live our lives,” said Lindquist.

Ito said for her, as a senior, the lessons of the book are even more obvious right now.

“It’s so applicable for me, going off to college next year,” said Ito. She said that even as times and people’s circumstances change, the relationships they work at will continue on.

“The book bridges a diversity of people; from freshmen, to seniors to teachers, everyone can relate,” she said. “People tend to overlook the little things.”

Ito said she was surprised how fast the project moved. Students were able to see a portion of their interview the Friday after it was taped, just three days later.

“It was really incredible,” she said. “I was really touched that she [Sayers] thought of me.”

Sayers said she would have loved to include every one of her students who had read the book, but that it simply was not possible to fit the thousands she has taught into the project.

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