Two weeks from today, family, friends, and others who knew and loved Janet Osborn will gather at Pathfinder K-8 School, where she taught, to celebrate her life. Today, her life story, written by Zachary Desmond, is shared in remembrance:
Janet Leigh Osborn was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on January 1st, 1956. In deference to Janet’s penchant for non-linear thinking, compassionate inclusivity, and radical love of learning and discovery, the remainder of this life account is organized not by chronology, but by beginnings.
It begins in a hospital room. “When they brought her in to me, she weighed nine pounds, four ounces, and she was so cute,” Jane, Janet’s mother, tells me over the phone. “The nurses had put a ribbon in her hair and the lady next to me said, ‘Well, why didn’t they put a ribbon in my daughter’s hair?’ And I thought, ‘Well, because your daughter isn’t as cute!'” Sixty-one years later, Janet’s husband, Mike Oliver, upholds the opinion.
It begins in a classroom at the EEU on the University of Washington campus. “It was 1986, and we had a mutual friend, Jennifer Annable, our principal, she got me the job and she and our other friend Debbie Sherwood were trying to matchmake,” he tells me. “We were definitely interested in each other.” He would watch her interact with her students and have “so much fun with her coworkers,” and, “just enjoy being a teacher.”
It begins at home. “It was Matthew who turned her to teaching,” says Jane. When Janet was seventeen, her brother Matthew was born with Down Syndrome. Betty Schwieterman, Janet’s best friend since high school, tells me, “When Matthew was born, a whole group of our friends started learning about babies with Down Syndrome, and what special education is and a few of us were like, ‘Wow, this is cool,’ and we realized that we could actually have this as a career.” That impulse to learn and facilitate learning led Janet across the country and eventually to the school in Seattle, where she met Mike.
It begins with a road trip. “One day out of the clear blue sky, they packed up and went on their way to California.” So the great adventure begins, according to Jane. Betty assures me that it wasn’t quite so spontaneous. “We were planners. We planned the trip, planned the route, but there was a lot we didn’t know.” They’d talked about leaving for awhile, but 1980 was a particularly miserable summer in Kansas City, so they did their research, saved their money, sought out a place with “a pleasant climate, a pleasant political climate, a good graduate school, and good neighborhoods,” and set off on their grand adventure.
Janet had her misgivings, especially about leaving Matthew behind, “but something was drawing us here,” says Betty. “We didn’t know what it was, but we gave each other the confidence to do it.” This is a characteristic Janet later helped cultivate in her children, according to Maggie, Janet’s daughter.
“She always believed in us. She trusted that we knew ourselves, what we wanted to do, and that we would make the best choice. She fostered in us that sense of trusting ourselves.”
The road trip landed Betty and Janet in Seattle, where Janet’s fearless friendliness quickly found them a community of friends. “We moved to Fremont, just by chance,” says Betty, “We had no idea we were in the center of the universe but there we were.” Her son Michael marvels at that today. “I went most my life not even recognizing that she moved out here after college, and by the time I came along it was as if she grew up here… it’s so impressive, to build a huge community of people who love you.”
Jane recalls visiting Janet in West Seattle and meeting people everywhere they went. “All her students at school thought the world of her. Any place she’d go she’d know somebody because her students’ mothers and fathers loved her, and then her students started growing up and we’d see them too.” Jane assumed that Janet would eventually come home, but “When she fell in love with Mike, I knew it was a losing battle to try to get her back.”
It begins with cold water. Janet overheard Mike in conversation with a chronically laconic six-year-old in the halls one morning. “I’m so tired,” refrained the six-year-old, again. Mike turned to him, and without admonishing him said, “Okay, here’s what my dad taught me. When you wake up and you’re tired in the morning, you just turn on the faucet, get some cold water, and splash it in your face, like this,” miming the action for emphasis. The historical record is unclear as to if the child was moved by this demonstration, but Janet was smitten.
“We were both smitten,” says Mike, “But I wasn’t moving particularly fast. I’m a non-functioning romantic.” Luckily, Janet, being a highly functional romantic, knew this.
Many of Mike’s relatives were in Seattle, and Janet very quickly ingratiated herself into the family. “It was seamless, we were both enamored of little kids, my sisters were having babies, and we would visit and babysit. It’s like she was saying, ‘I’m not just with you Mike, I’m with you and your whole family.'”
It begins at a wedding. They were married on August 20th, 1988 at Hainsworth House in West Seattle. As Betty recalls, “It was a Janet event. She wanted it to be family, and to be beautiful but simple. Such a great match those two, there’s just so much joy when you know it’s a good thing.” Betty captures the relationship beautifully, saying, “Her partnership with Mike didn’t dramatically change or transform Janet. It was like a resonant affirmation of who she was. And it was a good fit.”
It begins in the heart. Beyond a vibrant core of shared values and the wholehearted desire to raise children in partnership, Mike just loved the way she taught. “We both saw each other’s style and that was a good sign. Social justice, equality, it’s in her craft as a teacher, it was something that she strived for and hoped for.” For over twenty years as an elementary school teacher at Pathfinder Elementary, “Her intentions were focused on how she was going to help craft this little human, and this group of humans, that they might someday think beyond themselves and beyond their little spheres. Which is a lot to ask of 5 and 6 year olds, but she would take that on.” And she took on much more, Mike says, “continually seeking training for herself, training her fellow teachers,” and when needed, rallying for the rights of educators. “Her craft and her passion was teaching,” he says, “And she was willing to do what she had to do to be with the kids, which sometimes meant standing up to protect herself and the profession.”
For Michael and Maggie, their children, it took awhile to appreciate the benefits of having two justice-seeking educators as parents. That commitment to craft made its way into what they call “Family Meetings.” Under the crushing non-punitive communication and reflection inherent in these meetings, Michael recalls thinking, “Why can’t you just yell at me like normal parents?”
Maggie remembers struggling in first-grade math. She would crawl under her desk, out the door, across the hallway and into Janet’s classroom. “I would hide under her desk and she would have to find me and bring me back.” Later, when Maggie was given the option to go into high-school math as an 8th grader, she was certain she wasn’t up for it and signed up for the regular course. Janet called her current math teacher, learned more about what Maggie was capable of, and guess who ended up in 9th-grade math the next year. Maggie was furious. “I was so mad but it was something I needed to be pushed on because even though I thought I wasn’t good enough, she dug into me and knew me better. The class was no problem.”
Janet and Mike kept notebooks from Family Meetings, and my favorite shows two action items following a discussion of sibling comportment while Michael and Maggie were at elementary school. Item 1: “Maggie has to stop going up to Michael and hugging him at school in the hallway.” Item 2: “Michael has to say hello to his sister at school in the hallway.” I love this document because it reveals a few things about Janet’s and Mike’s worldview: The world is imperfect and sometimes life is hard, especially when other people are involved, but if we show up and talk to each other, we can imagine a better way of doing things together, and then (and this is important) actions must be taken.
Just because they were teachers, practicing experts in childhood development, and exceptionally suited partners in the great experiment of parenting, doesn’t mean it was easy. Mike recalls one time when Michael was toddling and Maggie was a baby, “She would have such a hard time going to sleep, just crying and crying,” and Mike and Janet were committed to “waiting it out.” After a few weeks of this, they were “against the wall, on our backs, slumping down in exhaustion, but we looked at each other,” somewhere between tears and laughter, I imagine, and said, “We can do this, we can do this!”
And they did. Mike reminds me that “both of us had worked with kids who are much-maligned, with families in socioeconomic straits, dealing with institutional racism, and our kids didn’t have to deal with that. But that informed our philosophies of unconditional love, and matched us so well, and Michael and Maggie are a testament to that, best of friends.” Approximately 15 years after the Hugging in the Hallway meeting, it was Michael who was holding onto Maggie at the end of a long family road trip from Boulder, CO to Portland, OR. Maggie was about to leave for Ireland for a year and it would be the longest they had ever gone without seeing each other. “When we dropped him off,” Maggie says, “He gave me the biggest hug and we both started to cry.” Through tears, Michael managed his protest, “You’re leaving just when we’re starting to be friends!” Maggie remembers thinking, ‘I think we were already friends,’ but she let it slide for the time being. I can attest that Janet was a very happy puddle.
As both Maggie and Michael get older and start their own careers working with children, Michael reflects that his inner Janet is coming to the fore, noticing in himself that he is no longer satisfied with the status quo or the easy answer. “She isn’t willing to take something for granted, and wants to get to the bottom of why things are the way they are, not in a stubborn way, not to prove anybody wrong, just a true desire to improve her understanding.” Even with her treatment, Michael says, “She was always pushing back and trying to understand why a certain treatment was being offered, asking ‘What’s the best thing for me?’ and taking that as a small part of the bigger picture by also asking ‘What’s good for everyone?'”
Mike sees that this is the world she was trying to bring about in the classroom, in her community, in her home. The family meeting, the circle of peers and teachers: “That’s the microcosm, it’s the circle that respects the individual and the group, helping us all understand that our own progress and journey takes a bunch of different kinds of steps, and it’s not straightforward. Respect each other, set limits, provide challenges.” And love.
It begins with love. “That’s the thing that keeps coming to mind,” says Maggie. “A few weeks before she died, it was important to tell her that I am happy about who I am and love myself and love who I’ve become, and I give her so much credit for that. Even if she already knew it, I wanted to tell her. That’s all she wanted, for us to love ourselves, and each other, and everything else is extra.”
As she was dying, “Janet continued to talk to people about being kind, about treating people with kindness,” says Betty. “She didn’t have to do that. She was really thinking about how she’s leaving the world, how’s she’s leaving her family, hoping to leave them with a better idea of how to love each other.”
It begins with a road trip. Cruising down I-84 in 2013, somewhere between the Snake River and the Columbia, and I was reading aloud from John Green‘s young adult novel “The Fault in Our Stars,” the part of the story when the protagonist Hazel Grace and her cancer-support group friend Isaac, host a “living funeral” for her lover and best friend Gus, who is living out some of his last days with terminal cancer. Janet insisted that I read louder as Michael, Maggie, and I blubbered in the back seat and she blubbered up front. The three friends in the novel laugh and cry and reiterate to each other how much they love each other, how irremovable they are to the makings of their souls, hearts, and minds. I don’t know how many similar circles Janet hosted, but in the final weeks of her life, I witnessed three and they were some of the most precious circles of my life. She’s a teacher through and through. Even then, we were all learning from Janet, how to be good to each other, how to die, how to live, and how lucky we are to have each other, right now, as long as that lasts.
I don’t know where one thing begins and another ends. Where one event, or thought, or person begins and another ends. I do know that Janet loved life ferociously, and worked hard to be present to each precious day, and to the people she met along the way. I am blessed to have known her and to see her special kind of presence and love shine from each of the people she has known and touched. Today it begins with us.
Janet Osborn died on August 23rd, 2017. She is survived by her husband of 29 years, Mike Oliver; her two adult children, Michael and Maggie Osborn Oliver; her mother, Jane Osborn; her sister, Kathy Gilroy and Kathy’s husband,Mickey and her brothers, Paul and Matthew Osborn; and multitudes of aunts, cousins, nieces, nephews and grand-nieces and grand-nephews on both sides.
A celebration of her life will occur at Pathfinder School on October 8th from 11 am-2 pm.
You’re invited to share memories of Janet at emmickfunerals.com.
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