In memoriam: My teacher and inspiration, Jemimah Noonoo
I don’t admit to this often, but this was an exceedingly tough thing to write about.
As journalists, it’s sometimes shameful to admit when certain things affect you personally, profoundly, to the point where your objectivity is in danger of being compromised.
Jemimah Noonoo, an inadvertent visionary; a mother of one, Nathaniel; a sister, professor, mentor and unassuming light on the UH campus has died. And that’s a difficult thing to talk about without saying things Ms. Noonoo would feel are far too cheerless.
I took Ms. Noonoo’s class a year ago during my first semester at UH. She’d say things like “ratchet” or “bonkers” or “cray;” ten minutes later, she’d be telling you about her experiences at the Missouri School of Journalism, where she earned her Master of Arts in Journalism, or her time at Newsweek, or the Houston Chronicle, or The New York Times. You’d be blown away, only to realize she’d used the word “ratchet” ten minutes ago. And then you’d smile.
People like Ms. Noonoo — Jemimah, as she’d probably want me to drop the formality — don’t come around often. I know we say that about anybody that’s passed, but it’s the God’s honest truth when it comes to her. I’ve never encountered anybody else like her, anybody that even came close to paralleling her effortless eloquence, her spirit, her unapologetic faith in God. That zeal, that natural sense of joy, her assumed sense of optimism — that can’t be faked.
“You feel that?” she’d ask the class after a rousing lecture on hunting down the story. “That’s the passion! That’s the hunger!”
I’d hang around after class sometimes. Initially, this wasn’t something I volunteered for. Sometimes Ms. Noonoo would ask me to help students after class with their writing for a few minutes or so. But before I knew it, it would be 8:30 p.m., 30 minutes after class had ended. Ms. Noonoo and I, and sometimes a few other students would be nerding out about something — talking about journalism, or her family, or faith, or something that the Times had written about that we thought was out of this world. She’d talk about her mother (“God love her,” I remember her saying more often than not), or her son (“my little Chocolate prince!” she once described him by to the class, only to be met with sheets of laughter).
One Tuesday, she called me to see if I could email the class; she was at the hospital, and she’d have to cancel that night’s session. Her voice was noticeably less full-bodied, and pretty coarse, chapped.
She asked me if I had been able to cover a concert I told her I’d wanted to review for her class. I had; for twenty minutes, from her hospital bed, she asked me how things went. How the concert was, if I was able to meet some quirky attendees. She was exuberant, almost more excited than I was. For twenty minutes, too sick to hardly move, she talked to me about the smallest, most inconsequential story. It was beyond a polite gesture; she just couldn’t be stopped from caring.
“I’ve gotta run now, hon,” she said, after talking to me for twenty minutes from a hospital bed.
And that’s why this has been really hard to write about.
She never told me she was sick — near the end of the semester, it got tougher and tougher to hide it. The class never had a name to associate to the cancelled sessions, the feeding tubes that Ms. Noonoo sometimes came in wearing, the dulled eyes, but never a dulled spirit. To this day, that information hasn’t been released by Noonoo’s family.
On Sept. 14, Jemimah Noonoo passed away. She was 34.
On the last day of class, the last day I saw her, Ms. Noonoo had us do a “mock” twenty-year reunion.
“Come to class as who you want to be; who you WILL be,” she told us, that signature fire in her belly. We took advantage of the freedom — among others, Ms. Noonoo was in the presence of three Vogue editors, an environmental lawyer, an E! News anchor, a music journalist living in Austin and a sports journalist living in New York City. During the “reunion,” one by one, we got up and talked about our lives — the lives that Ms. Noonoo desperately wanted us to have, only by virtue of us desperately wanting them.
She beamed. With each student that spoke, Ms. Noonoo became more and more engaged in these new, hyperfictional personas.
“This reunion is really going to happen, guys!” she told us. “Believe in this. Chase this.”
She said she couldn’t wait to see us again. I still believe this to be true.
— Cara Smith, Editor-in-chief