I had the privilege of designing and building a memorial bench for the staff of the Lesley Ellis School in honor of a beloved teacher who passed away quite young. Through conversations and sketches, I was able to tailor a uniquely personal memorial which embodies the qualities for which Jon was most known. Below are some pictures of design sketches, work in progress, and the finished bench. Following the album is the dedication my client read at the unveiling.
When we were thinking of ways to honor Jon, we tried to think of things that would somehow qualify to stand in for such a beloved teacher and friend. The truth is that no thing will actually suffice, but we recognized the importance of creating something that might make us feel connected to Jon and all of his wonderful Jon qualities, which so many of us here appreciated. When I was trained by Jon in the workings of the library two years ago, he mentioned wanting a bench for kids to hang out on, a place to share a book or tell a story. And so the idea of a bench in his honor began.
As soon as we spoke with Ben Cohan, the wood shop teacher at Dearborn, we knew we had found just the person to construct such a bench. His obvious building talents aside, Ben wanted to know as much as he could about Jon. It was important to him that whatever he made would “feel” like Jon. It became a very interactive process … of sharing information and refining details, of having a plan but not being limited by it, of giving small fragments of ideas and feeling confident that the skilled expert would grow them into a beautiful and functional work of art. Not so very different from the way many of us felt while teaching and learning with Jon.
If you look at the bench from the right side, you will begin to notice that the whole bench is built around three J-shaped supports, which carry the weight of the bench and create its shape. Jon was our “J.” He was indispensable in shaping so much of what has become the essence of Lesley Ellis.
The wavy wooden slats are cut from a forest of diverse trees: Ash, red oak, cherry, mahogany, walnut, and maple – a wood tone rainbow, with one color easily distinguishable from the next, yet gently and comfortably flowing one into another. Jon helped us to do that at Lesley Ellis, to feel pride in our individuality and uniqueness, while also recognizing our membership in a community. The rippling wooden slats remind us of the enduring quality of the gifts Jon has left for us, how they will continue to be seen and felt just as a ripple in a pond spreads in ever widening circles.
Most of the bench is just what you expect to see or feel or notice in a bench- a comfortable and sturdy place to rest, to read, or to relax. But, just like Jon, the bench has some delightfully surprising aspects. Tonight the three hidden vases hold bright blooms, but we imagine in time, those among us with or recalling Jon’s sense of humor might find some less obvious, less appropriate uses, and one day walking by or pausing to sit we will laugh at the results…
And for some of those moments when we wish we could share something with Jon or when we have a vivid memory or thought that takes on new meaning in his absence, or if we simply have something to say, we might write those words down, look closely at the top of the bench, and discover a few subtly carved slots in which to place them. We invite you to do so tonight, if you are inspired.
Finally, this bench is an invitation. A call to us to communicate, to sit and laugh with one another, to tell our own stories and to hear others’, to pause and soak up the small moments. And, following that, to meet the world with kindness and fairness, to challenge each other in a supportive spirit, and to put all of ourselves into what we do, just as Jon would have. Thank you, Ben, for making this beautiful bench in Jon’s honor, and thank you, Jon, for giving us so much to work with.
– Jenn Young, 2012