On Jan. 17, 2017, Jamesville-DeWitt High School lost beloved language teacher Michele Kuon, who passed away after a long battle with illness. She was 60 years old. In the wake of the tragic loss, J-DHS students and staff are remembering Ms. Kuon and sharing their fondest memories of the amazing woman who touched so many hearts in the J-D community.
Ms. Kuon was a teacher at J-DHS for 38 years, teaching both Spanish and French classes. Students that had her truly looked forward to class with her. “Every day I had class with Ms. Kuon I was excited. Spanish with her was one of my favorite classes last year,” says junior Ben Fleet. Junior Riley Burns says that Ms. Kuon was “one of the kindest teachers in the whole school.” Seniors Harshal Nanavati and Petey Miedaner both agree with Burns. “She was one of the nicest people I’ve met,” says Nanavati. “She was truly an amazing woman and teacher,” says Miedaner. Ms. Kuon’s genuine love for Spanish and passion for teaching was something that you could see and feel in her. “It really was one of my best years of Spanish,” says junior Ryan Evans who had her last year. “Whenever you were around Ms. Kuon, you just got a sense of real love for the Spanish culture,” says junior Nico Modesti, “you could tell she really loved teaching.”
Ms. Kuon’s love and kindness was not only felt by her students; her colleagues at J-DHS felt it as well. Fellow language teacher Hank Cline believed that Ms. Kuon says Mr. Cline. “_” J-DHS Principal Paul Gasparini says that Mrs. Kuon’s loss was “devastating” and “heartbreaking for everyone.” “She really was the sweetest person I know,” says Mr. Gasparini. “She had the amazing ability to be friends and make friends with a wide variety of people,” he said; “she will be truly missed.”
Art teacher Carl Wenzel is still deeply upset after losing a friend of 38 years. “She was the type of person that you really wanted to be your friend, and that type of person comes around rarely in a lifetime,” says Mr. Wenzel. The relationship between Ms. Kuon and Mr. Wenzel was unique. “We had different personalities, where she was more of an introvert while I’m more of an extrovert. We had very different viewpoints on things like religion...But despite our differences, we had great conversations and became very close,” says Mr. Wenzel. “It just goes to show that she was truly a sweet individual. She cared about everyone, inside and outside of school,” he continued.
As last school year was nearing its end, Ms. Kuon shocked her students and J-DHS with surprising news: she would be retiring come June. The news broke the hearts of students and staff throughout the whole school. “I was really surprised when she told us that she’d be retiring, I didn’t expect it at all,” says junior Sean Hlywa. Despite the sadness the school felt, everyone supported her decision. “She supported us throughout the whole year, so we all wanted to support her for her last couple of months,” says Hlywa.
The cause for Ms. Kuon’s departure from teaching had to do with illness, though it was not something that she had shared with her students or most of the school at that time. It started with jaw pain that got worse and worse. The pain moved down through her neck and started affecting her spine. Doctors diagnosed her with Gorham-Stout disease (GSD), which is commonly called vanishing bone disease. GSD is a rare disease which results in progressive osteolysis, or bone loss. It usually affects a person’s bones in their skull, jaws, shoulders, collar bone, spine, ribs, and pelvis. There is not a specific cure for the disease, only treatments that are most effective with mild forms of the disease. Ms. Kuon’s GSD got so bad that she had to take leave for most of June and missed the Spanish finals, which were on the final day of school. After numerous surgeries over the late spring and summer, Ms. Kuon remained in Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, NY until her passing in January.
When asked about what she would be doing after she was officially retired, Ms. Kuon told her students that she would be pursuing her other passion: painting. Her classes really wanted to see her paintings once learning that she was a passionate artist. Ms. Kuon’s art consisted of realistic portrayals of scenery from landscapes and nature, painted in vibrant water colors. ”Ms. Kuon brought in these beautiful paintings that she’d done and showed them to my class,” said Modesti, “it made all of us smile when we told her how amazing her paintings were and you could see her face light up.” Junior Sabri Hafizuddin also fondly remembers the day that Ms. Kuon brought some of her paintings to class. “They were really, really good. We told her she should set up something online to be able to sell them,” says Hafizuddin. “I’ll never forget her face when we complimented her artwork.” says Fleet, “she was blushing and couldn’t stop smiling.”
There were only good memories that Ms. Kuon’s students recalled from moments in class. A group of seniors had a running inside joke with Ms. Kuon, lasting over a couple of years, starting from when they were sophomores. “Ms. Kuon was a huge Shaquille O’Neal fan. As a joke we would always write ‘Shaq’ on her boards or draw pictures of him. Sometimes we’d print out pictures of him and give them to her or hide them around her room,” says senior Bennet Chirco. “Our Shaq pranks always made her laugh,” says senior Ryan Collins. Junior Jungyun Kim says that her favorite memory of Ms. Kuon is how she made the class so welcoming. “I loved how we’d always do group activities with different people. The “pods” always made the learning so much better and there’s a lot of memories from doing them,” says Kim. Many students will truly cherish the impact Ms. Kuon had on their lives. “Every moment that I had with Ms. Kuon is a memory that I’ll never forget,” says Fleet.
On March 11 at 11 a.m., the family and friends of Ms. Kuon will be gathering at All Saints Church in the Eastside of Syracuse for a mass dedicated to celebrating her life. Mr. Wenzel, who will be delivering the eulogy, perhaps put it best: “there are not a lot of people like her in the world.”
Though sadly Ms. Kuon did not get the chance to live out her retirement, where she hoped to pursue her passion of painting beautiful landscapes with her watercolors that she so excitedly told her students about, she now has the view of a lifetime to inspire her paintings, and can even paint the landscapes in which we cannot see ourselves. Rest in peace, Ms. Kuon, you will be greatly missed.
I, myself, had Ms. Kuon as my Spanish teacher last year. She was one of the most generous people I have ever met in my life. Her passion for Spanish and teaching was prevalent through her smile. Her kindness was contagious. I know for a fact that my entire class would not detest anything I said. I will miss her smile in the Jamesville-DeWitt High School hallways. Descansa en paz, señora.