To the Amazing Tina Lane
By Scott Illiano
West Essex High School Teacher and Varsity Baseball Coach
Written for the Wessex Wire.
The message was delivered during a teacher’s workshop on Martin Luther King Day. If I wanted to say goodbye to Tina now was the time. Tina, is of course, Ms. Tina Lane, a former English teacher and Journalism expert who spent close to thirty years at West Essex. As I drove down the Parkway, I knew that doing so could be one of the more difficult things that I have ever had to do. What do you say to one of your closest friends and one of the most influential people to have ever touched your life while knowing it may be the last time that you ever speak? What would you say?
It was hard to fathom what I was about to encounter. As my hands shook against the steering wheel. I thought back to 1995. As a substitute teacher, I stood up for the morning announcements. We were then asked to observe a moment of silence. I falsely assumed that someone had died. Instead, the moment of silence was arranged by the Wessex Wire staff under the supervision of Ms. Lane because the Superintendent had censored the school’s paper by preventing them from publishing an investigative report related to a controversy between the Superintendent and the Vice Principal. Previously, I had only known Ms. Lane through a series of pleasantries exchanged in the staff room beginning in June of 1994, but I was compelled to learn more about her cause. Thus, I sought her out with the intention of doing so. What I got in return was the beginning of a life’s education and an irreplaceable friendship.
It was during our subsequent discussion about the moment of silence that I received one of hundreds of lessons that she would teach me over time. I asked her if she was afraid of any potential consequences for protesting the Superintendent‘s decision. She explained that there are “defining moments” in one’s life when one must stand up for what one believes in especially when involving the best interests of students. Those moments require great courage and ultimately define both who you are and what you stand for. She then advised me to be aware of my own defining moments.
Over the next 14 years there would be a number of times that Tina would again demonstrate not only the courage of her convictions, but also her amazing art of rhetoric. I used to say that she could go into a jury room with eleven other people against her and twelve people would come out seeing it her way. Her supreme understanding of words and their power provided her with the ability to sway an entire room. In fact, she had done just that both in staff meetings and on hiring committees that she served on at West Essex. I credit Tina for teaching me to be more attentive to the power of words and their meanings. She was very strong willed and unafraid to tell you how things were. I always admired that she would tell me what I needed to hear, even if it wasn’t what I may have wanted to hear at the time. That’s what true friends do. If she thought it was necessary she would put me in my place, but never in a mean way. In one instance, Tina had visited a beach house that some friends and I had rented. I was giving her a hard time for taking too long to put on her makeup as I was in a hurry to get home. She stepped out of the bathroom, glared at me and said, “I’m a girl. This is what girls do!” I said, Okay, humbly walked over to the couch, and sat quietly until she finished.
I arrive at the hospital and check in at the counter to obtain a visitor’s pass. On my way to the elevator, I coincidentally meet up with two of Tina’s closest friends, a woman named Mim whom Tina had met as a college student at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and former West Essex Director of Guidance, Dr. Jackie Moore. For those of you who never had the privilege of meeting or working with Jackie while she was at West Essex, she recently stepped up in heroic fashion and put forth what I consider to be a Herculean effort by organizing a fundraiser to help care for Tina in her last months. As a result, she has now established the Tina Lane Memorial Scholarship and will be presenting the award to a West Essex student on an annual basis.
The three of us ride the elevator together. As we enter Tina’s room, several family members have already arrived. Tina is momentarily startled. She did not expect to see me and her face drops. “Scotty!” is what she always called me. “I’ve lost more weight!”
She is just days from her 58th birthday, but although Tina is a little more than twenty years my elder, she always looked to be roughly about my age. I used to joke that she had some secret “Fountain of Youth.” I had always thought she looked a lot like Catherine Zeta Jones or maybe a little like Ashley Judd. Perhaps a cross between the two would be the best description.
A full chicken dinner sits untouched on the tray in front of her. “Scotty, I can’t eat. I look like a concentration camp refugee,” she cracks. I tell her she is exaggerating and looks as beautiful as ever. She asks her brother to hand her a paper cup so she can attempt to eat a few ice chips. Tina explains that she might doze off a little and, if she does, we should continue talking because she can still hear us and is enjoying the conversation.
A few of Tina‘s guests step out, but plan to return again in the evening. Her brother Elio, Mim, and I remain. I sit beside her and hold her hand. Although she herself cannot eat, she asks me if I am hungry and offers me some food. She is so concerned that it’s been several hours since I have eaten. I attempt to explain that I can’t eat either, but nothing comes out of my mouth. In an instant, I begin to unravel, and break down like a two year old. Tears pour down my cheeks uncontrollably. Although she has little strength and can barely move her arms, she somehow reaches over and hands me a tissue. But, then again, why wouldn’t she? She had already spent a lifetime serving others and her life was not yet over.
She had sacrificed numerous lucrative job opportunities with the likes of Matt Lauer and John McLaughlin. She had turned away news networks and other media outlets because she preferred a lifestyle that would enable her to raise her young daughter Kirsten. Tina always placed her large and beautiful family first and made sure to go out of her way for all of them. In fact, she had sacrificed a good part of her own social life after her mother had become too ill to take care of herself. At that time, Tina moved her mother in with her and gave her the round-the-clock care that she needed until her passing in the fall of 2007. She had given up Saturday mornings to teach dance to 3-5 year olds all of whom adored her as she did them in return. She cared for animals too, especially her three cats. If the situation called for it, she would adopt a kitten off the streets.
Teacher, Mentor, Friend
Tina would routinely spend endless hours teaching, mentoring, and nurturing others. There were nights I would lock up the coaches office and pull out of the parking lot around 9:30 p.m. For a moment, I would trick myself into thinking that I was the last staff member on campus, only to see Tina’s car still parked in her spot. On more than one occasion, Tina and her staff of the Wessex Wire would work on their paper well past midnight and then return to school the next day for a 7:30 a.m. homeroom. Tina was an excellent teacher in many different areas, including English, creative writing, and theatre arts. Of all her gifts however, perhaps her greatest was her ability and knowledge as a teacher of journalism.
Tina had incredibly high standards for the journalists on her Wessex Wire staff. I discovered this first hand after I had written an op ed piece for her paper in the Winter of 1996. Ironically, the Wire students would aspire to obtain “The Big F,“ which served as a a nickname for a final copy that was ready for publication in The Wessex Wire . Getting “The Big F” was far from easy. It was an arduous process often requiring eight or more drafts. After submitting their work to Ms. Lane, she would take out a pencil as opposed to a red pen presumably to soften each blow. She would often switch the order of paragraphs and make markings all over each page. As a result I nicknamed her “The Slasher.“ The end result was often a masterpiece. If you could come out on the other side and obtain “The Big F” great rewards awaited you. Her students would feel accomplished because they had worked toward, and inevitably earned a published piece worthy of “award winning” quality. In the process, her students would simultaneously grow, develop, and, ultimately, become much better writers with a true understanding of the overall writing process. Above all they would outwork everybody in sight and earn everything that they got.
The results of her expectations and the process were staggering. The Wessex Wire became a perennial award winning paper winning close to 30 awards on the local, state, and national level. I implore all current and future Wessex Wire journalists and advisors to consider the history, tradition, and legacy of the paper under Ms. Lane and look to continue that standard of excellence in the future. Following a woman whom I consider to have been the Michael Jordan of high school newspapers will not be easy, but Tina would be the first to say that awards are not the most important thing. The student effort and level of commitment are what count most.
As a result of her tutelage, some of Ms. Lane’s former writers would go on to occupy such prominent positions as speechwriter for Bill Clinton., a lead writer and executive producer for the David Letterman Show, senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, a television news reporter, and a vice president of an international company. Others have gone on to become screenwriters and news writers, and have applied their knowledge and writing ability in a variety of other professional fields. A common thread among them is that they would all credit Ms. Lane’s teaching and influence for their success, and they would do so publicly.
After Tina’s departure from West Essex, we often resorted to something that we had become accustomed to over the years, namely talking on the phone. It seemed as if every time I put groceries away or folded laundry, I called her. Whenever she dusted or cleaned her bathroom, she called me. Even during those casual moments, she never deviated from her elegant nature. For example, she’d always say, “Ok, I need you to know that I’m going to flush the toilet now, but I’m not going to the bathroom. I’m just cleaning.” I would tell her that we’re friends so she shouldn’t bother to explain that to me. Then, as a joke, I would flush my toilet and say nothing. Regardless of where and when we spoke she was always so bright, extremely funny, and full of wisdom. She could “bottom line” things better than anybody I knew as she always seemed to have every situation already figured out. She would give me personal advice, professional advice, and, essentially, counsel me in all of life’s matters. Over time I realized that no matter what she advised, it always boiled down to one’s character and integrity. She placed an enormous emphasis on the notion of being true to yourself, just as she believed deeply that if one possessed courage then that would also cover all other important values.
Always the Best
As I held her hand, my sobbing and tears continued. “Scotty, I love you. You’re my best friend.” She glances over at Mim. “My best male friend that is!” Mim is not offended. “I’m going to be fine. We’re going to have more times together. You can come see me anytime.” I knew that wasn’t true. I knew that she was lying on her death bed or close to it, and she was selflessly trying to console me. Although her condition was terminal, she was putting my feelings first. Her selflessness was immeasurable.
I make another attempt to speak but again no words come out. Finally, I get a hold of myself. I tell her how much I love her, how much she has meant to me, how much she has taught me, and the profound impact that she has had on my life. I explain how much it hurts me to see somebody that I love suffering. To Tina there were no problems. There were only challenges. She squeezes my hand tighter and further demonstrates her own courage, “This is a challenge! It’s just a test of my faith and a lesson for me to take each day one at a time.” She then explains that she expects to be up dancing again.
I immediately reflect back to her 50th birthday party and watching all her friends and family stare at her on the dance floor. I then recalled a particular evening in which we had gone to a nightclub in Manhattan. As the music blared, about ten guys surrounded her while dancing because she was clearly the best dancer on the floor. At that point, every girl in the vicinity, some half her age or less, just stopped and stared awestruck at what they were seeing. There was very little that Tina couldn’t do. Whether she was teaching, acting, dancing, or writing she did everything her best. More often than not, she was the best at everything she did.
Before I leave the room I hug her tight. I kiss her cheek and then her hand. I look at her eyes. “I love you Tina. I‘ll see you soon,” is all I can spit out given my emotions. In the elevator I am filled with grief. I contemplate how amazingly faithful and spiritual Tina is. I pray. Then I hear her voice recite a phrase that she had used over and over. “Whatever is in keeping with God’s best interests.” I realize that no matter her fate, the lessons that I have learned from her will live with me forever. I also realize that fittingly she has just taught me another lesson because this is a test of my faith too, and I must also take it one day at a time.
As the elevator opens I randomly consider a variety of memories that we had shared together. Then I contemplate the countless number of lives that Tina has positively impacted. She is a great woman I say to myself, because knowing her has made me a better man. In fact, she left everyone and everything that she ever touched better than she found it: family, friends, boyfriends, students, colleagues, West Essex High School, The Wessex Wire, and Fairlawn High School. She was love personified. She treated everyone no matter what their status or position in society like they were royalty. She even made lasting impressions on people regardless of how much time she had spent with them.
As I walk toward the exit of the hospital I open my phone and read a text message sent by my friend Verick’s wife Victoria. Although Victoria had only met Tina on a handful of occasions, that was all she needed. The text read; “In my life.. In the thousands of people that have brushed my life, there are few that have ever possessed the brilliant beauty and light that she illuminates.. So bright in fact, that you have to stand back to even see her face.”