Spirit Matters: Retiring teacher, friend embodies what it means to ‘make a difference’

Jerrilyn Zavada Novak

This week, I watched as a longtime family friend retired from Normal Community High School after 34 years of teaching there and in Round Lake.

I have read dozens of tributes to her on social media from colleagues and former students. And I watched a YouTube video of her dancing in front of the student body that was posted to Bloomington-Normal radio station WBNQ’s Facebook page to celebrate her last day. The video, recorded some years ago, elicited a standing ovation from students and teachers alike.

It is classic Jayne (Conner) Runyon.

I have known Jayne, a Streator native, since around fourth grade. She was, and still is, one of my older sister’s best friends. Jayne was introduced to our household at the height of its chaos – and loved every minute of it. As she was the youngest child in a large family, she “got” it. She fit right in with the rest of us, always making us laugh. And, years later, she was there for us through some of our deepest losses.

You could say Jayne was somewhat of an older sister to me. She and my sister were roommates in their early years after college. When I first moved to Bloomington-Normal in my early 20s, Jayne and I often would talk on the phone. Our conversations always made me feel better.

And it’s that “older sister” vibe that has allowed Jayne to have the immeasurable effect she has had on generations of students not only as a teacher, but as a friend as well. Being present to her students – actually anyone, for that matter – in whatever their situation is is Jayne’s superpower.

She genuinely cares.

Jayne has endured enough personal trials and losses in her own life that she has a deep well from which to educate, counsel, inspire and encourage. She knows all too well the heights and depths of experience that life can throw at us. And she knows how much different the world is for students since she was in their place. It seems to me it is that experience, coupled with her natural talents and gifts, that has made her the teacher thousands of students have come to respect, admire and, yes, love.

The last time I saw Jayne in person was Sept. 10, 2001. It was a Monday evening, and I was lurking around Eastland Mall in Bloomington. Jayne was pushing her daughter in a stroller by Gloria Jean’s Coffee Beans. We stopped and talked for a few minutes.

I might not remember this encounter if it weren’t for the horrendous events of the following morning. But, being someone who tends to find meaning in just about everything, I can’t help but believe that brief chat in the mall was meant to happen. If not for her, for me to look back and have something to hold onto in the midst of so much chaos and uncertainty. To have that anchor from my childhood, yes, but also to have an encounter with someone who has always been there to lift people’s spirits and make them believe in themselves and to believe in life itself.

Normal Community is losing a well-respected and deeply admired teacher.

But even more, the teaching profession is losing someone who has worked in the trenches of the public school system for the last 34 years, enduring all of the restrictions and limitations forced on educators from every direction, yet still kept her focus on one thing: connecting heart to heart with her students, and making their lives better for having known her.

To a job well done ...

Enjoy your retirement, my friend.

You so deserve it.

SPIRIT MATTERS is a weekly column by Jerrilyn Zavada Novak that examines experiences common to the human spirit. Contact her at jzblue33@yahoo.com.

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