Sense of Decency

Listening to others, seeing things through their eyes.

Photo © Jim McKeever.


Dedicated to the memory of Caryl Cooper.

As I sat down the other morning in the phlebotomist’s chair, I noticed a plaque on the desk behind her.

“Good Vibes Only,” it read.

I typically babble during needle-related procedures to distract myself, so I told her I liked its sentiment. She thanked me and said life is too short to be miserable or mean to one another. I guessed her to be a few years younger than I.

And then we discovered we share a hobby — we regularly check the local obituary page. Each of us also takes note of the ages of the deceased, who too often are in our demographic. I told her about the recent obit of a guy my age (63) who I used to pal around with but hadn’t seen in 40 years. 

Of course, as soon as I got home I went online to check the local obits only to find yet another person I knew — my favorite English teacher from high school, who nurtured my love of writing and reading. 

Ever since we reconnected on Facebook almost a decade ago, she donated $100 in my name every year to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation for pediatric cancer research. We caught up in person one year at the annual head-shaving event in Syracuse, and I joked that I should introduce her to my friends by saying, “We went to high school together.” 

After I saw her obit, I checked her Facebook page. 

On Dec. 14, the day before she died, she shared a meme that read, “Don’t waste your time looking back on what you’ve lost. Move on, because life is not meant to be lived backwards.” 

Always the teacher. 

The timing of her homework assignment couldn’t have been better. 

For a long time now, even before the pandemic, I’ve been restless, struggling with an omnipresent sense of urgency tinged with dread. 

The same phrases run through my brain in a vicious loop.

“Time is running out, I’m another year older, I still haven’t done this or that, I won’t be in good health forever …” Blather, rinse, repeat. 

It can be debilitating, especially the regrets.

A few days ago I remembered I had written something about this on my personal blog, so I went looking for it.

I was convinced I had posted it just last year or the year before.

Turns out it was 2015, just after I had turned 58.

In that post I cited a few examples of my distorted sense of time, of my grasp of when certain events had occurred in my life. I was incredulous that the years and decades had passed so quickly.

Older folks will get this — life used to be at 33 rpm, then 45. Now the turntable is spinning at 78 rpm all the time. Is there a faster speed? I hope not. As my daughter-in-law says of the time-lapse blossoming of my 20-month-old granddaughter, “Please slow down!”

At the risk of looking back (apologies to “Coop,” as Ms. Cooper was affectionately known) so much has happened in the world, and in this country, since I wrote that “sense of urgency” post in 2015. 

We are closing the books on one of the most traumatic years in history. More than 300,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, jobs and homes have been lost, and our trust in government and in our fellow Americans hangs by a thread.

The rollout of the vaccines is cause for optimism, of course. When science, medicine and beneficence eventually put an end to the pandemic, we can hit the re-set button. 

I’ve been one of the lucky ones. The pandemic postponed a humanitarian trip to the southern border, but it hasn’t affected my health and has caused only a few relatively minor hassles. 

Now, the prospect of finally reining in the virus has ramped up my restlessness. I need to get back out there in the world, to play catch-up, to make up for lost time. There’s so much I haven’t done, Coop. But I’m trying to do the homework you assigned and just look ahead, I really am.

How much time do I have? 

How much time does any of us have? 

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. Nothing and everything has changed since his 2015 blog post, “Why the Sense of Urgency? The Numbers Don’t Lie.” Thank you for everything, Caryl Cooper, 1945-2020. The photo above is of the author’s brother Joe looking out at the Pacific Ocean, from Crystal Cove State Beach, California, in 2011.

10 thoughts on “A favorite teacher’s final homework assignment

  1. Mary Ellen (White) Turner (BL '75) says:

    Thank you so much for honoring our dear Miss Cooper. We were so blessed to have her share her light with us. May we pass it on to others. Obviously, she made a difference in your life and your writing and you continue her good work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jim McKeever says:

      Thank you, Mary Ellen. She was an inspiration to many of us for so many years.


  2. Joanne Bataglia says:

    Caryl and I had been friends for many many years…I have a hole in my heart…thank you for appreciating the wonderful things and times that she brought to everyone in life…she was one of a kind…the best kind…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jim McKeever says:

      You are so right, Joanne. It was so nice to reconnect with her long after high school and share memories. She was always so upbeat and encouraging, and definitely played a big part in so many young lives.


  3. Claire Dunn says:

    I’m thinking the same thoughts, Jim. Thanks for explaining it so eloquently.


    1. Jim McKeever says:

      Thanks, Claire … here’s hoping 2021 brings change for the better. Maybe then things will slow down a bit.


  4. Lauri Bousquet says:

    Thank you for this beautiful tribute, Jim! I, too loved having Ms. Cooper as an English teacher ( BL – class of ’74) and she was an inspiration to me when I became an English teacher. How lucky we are to have known her.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jim McKeever says:

      Thank you, Lauri, and that’s wonderful that you became an English teacher! I wonder how many of Coop’s former students followed her path as you did. We were lucky indeed.


  5. Katherine Polhamus says:

    I always check the Obituaries without fail even though I have no family of origin here in my adopted home of Syracuse. I love reading about people’s lives and finding people I know and I end by saying a quick prayer over each page.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Jim McKeever says:

    Saying a prayer is such a wonderful thing to do, Katherine. And reading about people’s lives can be fascinating and humbling. Yesterday I saw an obit for a 65-year-old man I worked with when we were teenagers, pumping gas in Syracuse. I recognized his name and read about his career as a decorated firefighter and his life as a father of four daughters. What shocked me was that he was predeceased by six of his seven siblings.


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