Alex Woodman was my son’s favorite teacher. A few weeks ago, he died suddenly at 59. It’s taken time to process, for me and for the whole community. There are no words to describe this man, but because he loved stories, and words are where I go when I’m trying to understand things, I offer these up.
My son, Jordan, described Mr. Woodman like this:
He was the guy who would brighten up anybody’s day. He didn’t have that teacher vibe. He was about more than just math. He was a friend that taught every kid to push hard and never give up through rough times. He always had a story to tell.
My son hates math. Mr. Woodman’s math class was the first (and only) math class that became his favorite class. That happened freshman year when things were new making Mr. Woodman’s guidance ever more angelic. He was the type of teacher always available to speak or email a parent immediately. He was the type of teacher that was always kind to his students before anything else. He’s the type of teacher that is still teaching, even when he’s not physically present on the planet. He was unprecedented in a level of kindness he brought (and continues to bring) to a space.
Physically, he was a presence. Standing somewhere around 6’5″, his bald head and bright smile often donned sunglasses and a motorcycle helmet. His room was plastered with posters from rock bands and his was the classroom where Pink Floyd could often be heard pouring out the door. At BTSN, you could feel the presence of inspiration living in his room. Kids would just hang out there outside of class because it felt like a safe place to be.
Mr. Woodman had an impact on the community that can be seen loud and clear since his passing. As students found out what had happened, notes were plastered on his door and a shrine erected. One student planted a tree. We were in LA and heard immediately through the teen texting trail what had happened as students reached out to each other for comfort in the wake of the news over spring break.
The impact was so strong, counselors were brought in to help students on the first day back to school. My son spent all second period with his amazing counselor, Rob Swendiman, talking Mr. Woodman stories to ease the pain. A story in the Thursday, April 7 local paper, the Record Searchlight, highlighted what a life purpose beyond fulfilled looks like. The article talks about how every year Mr. Woodman printed off 8×11 sheets to each high school student that said NEVER GIVE UP. What a gift.
Every kid that passed through my house (and there’s a lot that visit) always said Mr. Woodman was there favorite teacher. He was a gifted storyteller. In his honor, I share with you a story from our dinner table while my kids were in his class.
A few years back, we housed a German exchange student, David. Nearly every night, David and Jordan had a “Woodman Story.” They would laugh hysterically as they tried to recount the details. Finally, one day David just taped it with his phone and brought the recording back. We all sat around the table, eating, listening and laughing, as Mr. Woodman talked about car chases and days working at Angelo’s Pizza in Redding. My husband and I both looked at each other. Mr. Woodman had a way of sneaking the math in when the kids thought they were just listening to stories. What an incredible gift.
“I want to take math with Mr. Woodman,” I remember thinking.
Other stories fill a Facebook feed called “Remembering Mr. Woodman” that Mr. Woodman’s son, Derek, created for people to share stories. I can feel the trickle down kindness in his son, also a teacher in San Diego. With Derek’s permission and trust, I have included a few stories that capture this incredible teacher. (To maintain anonymity, I’ve left the names off.)
I thought of you and the picture to the side.
What does a teacher do when he/she doesn’t know how to reach a student? Well if you’re Alex Woodman you show up at the student’s house with a guitar in your hand and sit for hours teaching them Beatles guitar chords – that’s what he did for me. Mr. Woodman was the greatest teacher I never had.
“Welcome to the greatest place you’ll ever be!” That’s the first thing he said to me when I first walked into that classroom. I was such an angry kid and I remember just hating everyone and everything. He helped me see so much more the first year I was there. The Friday before spring break I walked in with a couple of my good friends and he was playing some Pink Floyd. He saw me walk in and welcomed us with a hug; he told us he wanted us to have a great day. We did. If I would of known that was the last time I would speak to him I would of told him everything. Told him how much I appreciated and love him. He was always there. It’s still so surreal for me. Last week I had gotten to school early and went to his door. I had brought a speaker and played some Pink Floyd. I grabbed and turned the handle and couldn’t open the door. I thought if I tried hard enough; long enough; that The door would open. I cried hysterically. I just want to see the room one more time. Draw on the board one more time. Hear the music one more time.
It’s been Pink Floyd all week. It’s just another one of those things I am so thankful you’ve given me. It’s because of you I have come to appreciate music this much. Like many other things, you had so much love and passion for it, you simply brought out the beauty in everything. This week has been so hard, the hardest part is it was you who I always went to whenever I was this heartbroken and sad because you always gave me reassurance that everything would be okay, you always always put a smile on my face. I just miss you so much. I know if you were here you’d want us all to be happy and focusing on reminiscing the good moments that are memories with us forever. So I have Pink Floyd turned all the way up and I know you’re hearing it too ❤love you A.W.
I don’t think anyone knows how much I really miss you. You were such a great man, you taught me so much in life. And I will forever repeat those words you said to me just before I graduated. As the Beatles said “And, in the end The love you take is equal to the love you make.” Everyone you crossed paths with fell in love with your free spirit, genuine love for us, and of course your unique love for the Beatles and the Who. I miss you more than words can ever say. I love you💕
It’s taken me a couple of days to come to terms with this loss. To say that Mr. Woodman touched my life would be an understatement. He was such an inspiration and mentor to so many, including myself. His classroom was a safe haven. I remember my first few days at West Valley. A classmate of mine had invited me to eat lunch with her in her favorite teachers classroom. He welcomed me with a warm smile and a kind hello. Walking through that door, I didn’t feel alone and like an outcast. I started to feel at home at a new school where I knew absolutely nobody. Needless to say, he became one of my favorites too. Although I never actually had him as a teacher, he was and still is a favorite. When someone like comes into your life like him, they leave a lasting impression. The world has lost such a beautiful soul. Rest easy Mr. Woodman.
Alex Woodman, clearly, is still teaching now. These words and stories (and there are hundreds more) show that. He’s the teacher every teacher–alas, human–should aspire to be at their core. And his equation seemed quite simple: love first. In all the stories left on the feed, it was clear that kids felt seen and loved, some for the first time. We may not see him physically, but there is no doubt the gifts Mr. Woodman gave are still with us.
One final story. Last Wednesday, following a yoga class and preceding a spiritual practitioner class where we would be studying how different cultures/religions look at death and dying, I cleared my mind and listened to the teacher lead us to a meditative moment in shavasana. All was quiet as I lay on the floor in the dark, eyes closed. Suddenly, I saw Alex Woodman backlighted in the brightest light you can imagine. His smile beamed, his arms raised up, and his head tilted to the sky with the feeling of “All You Need is Love” in the air. The music still in him. I smiled, tears leaking out the corners of my eyes, pondering how he embodied the love that changes things.
Of course, Alex Woodman. You are an angel. It’s so obvious now.
Celebrate the music Alex Woodman gave to the world this Sunday, April 17–his 60th birthday–at West Valley High. Get there early. It’s going to be a sell out.