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Teachers, students, family remember Esko middle school teacher Jess Blake

Jess Blake

To hear her students tell it, there was never a dull day in Miss Blake's classroom.

"During the winter, she had these storm dances that she would do," said Matt Johnson, 17, a senior at Esko High School.

"And we all had to do the snow dance with her to make sure that school would get canceled the next day," added his classmate Carter Northey, 18.

Johnson and Northey had Jess Blake as their social studies teacher when they were in seventh and eighth grade. Their class was the last at Esko to have the full Jess Blake experience, principal Greg Hexum said, before she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer in September 2014.

A dancer and world traveler as well as a teacher, Jessica Kathleen Blake died on Feb. 22 at age 42.

Friends and family say Blake embodied a zest for living.

"In that little package ... she just packed a wallop," said Lisa McKhann, who met Blake through dance 18 years ago and became a close friend. "She was barely 5 feet tall, but she adventured all over the world in her summer breaks ... and she brought just a furious amount of energy into her classroom.

"She didn't have to be performing on stage to be living large."

Blake's first passion was for her middle school-aged students, said her parents, Rick and Kathleen Blake of Grand Rapids. Even while fighting cancer, she went back to the classroom when she could, most recently from September 2016 through January 2017.

"She said she was so excited to be back at school because the kids gave her purpose and they gave her energy," Kathleen Blake said. "She loved their goofiness and their creativity."

Glioblastoma multiforme, which Jess Blake was diagnosed with shortly after collapsing at school on Sept. 10, 2014, is the same form of brain tumor that afflicts Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. It's the cancer that claimed the life of Beau Biden, son of the former vice president; and of Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

When medical marijuana became legal on July 1, 2015, in Minnesota for purposes that included treating symptoms of cancer and relieving side effects of other treatments, Jess Blake and her parents wanted her to be among the first recipients. But she initially had difficulty finding a doctor who would certify her for the drug.

The formula that eventually was prescribed for Jess mostly consisted of CBD, which is the non-intoxicating component of marijuana, Kathleen Blake said. It reduced the swelling around the tumor, allowing her to regain her ability to speak and function almost to the end of her life. A small amount of THC helped to control nausea.

The Blakes have no regrets about the medical cannabis choice.

"After she started it was the difference between night and day," Rick Blake said. "She was able to read again, she could talk clearly and she had some good times in there."

For a time, it allowed her to get back to school, where she was a favorite of teachers and students alike.

"Everybody loved her," said Sarah Meyer, a middle school science teacher who has taught at Esko for 27 years. "She was always the favorite. ... She was a great middle school teacher."

Lisa Dupuis, an Esko teacher for 24 years, mentored Blake as a student teacher at Esko some 15 years ago, she said.

Blake came back to teach at Esko for 10 years before going on medical leave. During that time, Dupuis' son Sam Dupuis, another Esko senior, had Blake for a teacher in seventh, eighth and ninth grades. "I thank God every day that he did," she said.

Blake brought an emphasis on social justice to the social studies department, Dupuis said, and a message that every person in the world has value. Her summer travels were about her teaching.

"She tried to visit everywhere she taught about," Dupuis said. "That's what I loved about her. She brought the world to Esko."

Blake also equally valued every student, Dupuis added. "She just loved every single kid. You could not find a child that Jessica didn't just adore."

Her school has been remembering Blake this week. The first song at a school concert on Monday was dedicated to her; Carter Northey and Matt Johnson shared their thoughts with the audience. The annual Northern Lights Coaches v. Cancer basketball games on Tuesday also were dedicated to Blake.

Northey and Johnson said their class of 93 students will have a heavy presence at Sunday's memorial service for Blake.

"I think she was one of the first teachers to inspire learning in me in a way that could be fun," Northey said. "We always could count on her being at her best and making a bad day into a good day."

Memorial service

A memorial service and gathering for Jessica Kathleen Blake will take place Sunday at Peace United Church of Christ, 1111 N. 11th Ave. E. Visitation will be at 1 p.m., the service at 2 p.m. and appetizers and a celebration of her life at 3 p.m.