The legacy of Lauren Ashley
BRATTLEBORO — According to her family and friends, Lauren Ashley faced death the same way she faced life — as an opportunity to learn, to teach and to overcome.
"She was a lifelong educator in the most profound sense of that word; she created space in her classrooms, in her home and in her life for her students, friends and family to grow and thrive," said Beth Neher, a friend and professor at Marlboro College.
Ashley died on Feb. 20 after a two-and-a-half-year struggle with cancer. She was born in Oceanside, N.Y., on April 13, 1954.
According to her friends, she was a passionate and devoted fourth-grade teacher in the Brattleboro schools for 30 years and she developed deep bonds with her students, their parents and her colleagues, many of which evolved into lasting friendships.
Her younger brother, Bryan Ashley, said his sister was a fervent reader and thinker, lover of people, the arts, travels and culture.
"She was always on a quest for truth and beauty," he said. "She was quite opinionated and didn't hesitate to share her ideas. However, she could also be a good listener and was surprisingly open to other points of view. Conversations with her were always a bit of a roller coaster ride, often veering from topic to topic, but always stimulating, fun and interesting."
"When Lauren learned she had terminal cancer, she embraced everything about it and what it would mean for her," said Joyce Friedman, who knew Ashley since 1978 when they met in a singing group in Boston. "She read books on dying and wanted to talk about it, joke about it, and tell us where to scatter her ashes."
Ashley's son, Gabriel Trenchard, said that after retirement his mom spent the remainder of her life traveling and living her life to the fullest, while dealing with the cancer as best she could.
"Lauren lived her life to the fullest — even in her last few years," agreed Jen Rice, who taught with Ashley at Green Street School. "She spent them with family and friends, talking, laughing, going for walks, seeing shows, traveling the world and doing whatever she set her mind to."
"Lauren's great legacy to several generations of school children and their families will far out live this sad ending," said Melinda Ashley, Lauren's sister.
Jennifer Irion, who also taught with Ashley, said her friend treated each child that entered her classroom as the unique creature each one was. She also knew how to create lessons from challenges each child faced, including incidents of bullying.
"She was very quick," said Irion. "She was a great teacher because she cared about every student. She particularly supported those children who were more challenged, but never at the expense of those more gifted."
"Lauren was a fighter and an exceptional teacher," said Rice. "She fought for every child that entered her classroom. She loved them, cared for them and taught them. She was able to teach each child individually, knowing exactly where they were academically, how they learned, and how to push them to do their best. She taught children how to love one another and how to be caring and accepting of all people. I am very fortunate that both my daughters had Lauren as their teacher. Her impact on them has helped make them strong, caring, successful women."
Trenchard said his mom made an effort to befriend just about everyone she met. "As I've been wrapping up her business around town her impact on this community still amazes me, every person she interacted with spoke of her as a friend. My sister and I were lucky enough to have her as a mother and we will always be grateful for how she parented us. Countless others can also say the same, whether they were students, friends, or even acquaintances."
"If there was one thing that could describe my mom, it was the intensity of her love for her kids, both her children and her students," said Lauren's daughter, Michaela Ashley. "As a teacher for over 30 years, she believed in every student and fought endlessly for the ones who others wouldn't."
Bryan Ashley said it was only toward the end of his sister's life that he really got to know her "as a unique and fascinating person than just a big sister. When she held her Celebration of Life last August, I was so impressed by the fervent admiration and devotion of all of her friends, students and colleagues, through the amazing tributes to her life accomplishments as well as her generosity of spirit, that were emotionally and sincerely delivered."
"When I think of Lauren certain words quickly surface: warm, curious, compassionate, and informed," said Neher. "She was passionate about justice, equality, fairness and recognition, especially for those who live in poverty or with disability. She was profoundly involved in championing women's rights and equality, a commitment that was both local and worldwide. She was fully engaged in life, living and building community, and she undertook to engage in it all deeply. She had a wonderful sense of humor and laughed easily. Gardening was one of the many passions we shared as were food, walks and enjoying wide-ranging conversations."
Joyce Friedman, who knew Ashley since 1978 when they met in a singing group in Boston, said her friend saw her life as blessed and privileged, even after losing an arm and her mother at a young age.
"Every spring when she started wearing her spring and summer clothes, kids would ask questions about her arm," said Friedman. "She was very forthright, though it must have been hard for her."
Irion admitted their friendship wasn't always easy, but it was always rewarding.
"She was a complicated person," said Irion. "But anybody who is interesting, is also complex."
Deb Hall, who also taught with Ashley in the Brattleboro school system, said her friend was very creative when developing curriculum and cared for all of her students.
"She was well read and she embraced life fully," said Hall. "She also embraced her impending death. She was very graceful in the whole process."
"For anyone that has met my mother, they know that while her body may be gone, her spirit will live on in every garden, every bird, every eager child to start school, every note on a sheet of music, and every flip of a page of a book," wrote Michaela Ashley.
"Her friendship was a gift for me, and her death a loss, the magnitude of which I'm only partly aware of at this point," said Neher.
"Lauren was a brilliant light in this world," said Rice. "Even though she has passed, her light lives on in every person she has touched. We will carry her light and her love forward."
"She joined the universe with rainbows and flowers and poems and songs and friends and family," wrote Michaela Ashley. "Everything she would have loved. And for that, I am eternally grateful."
Bob Audette can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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