'I miss him so much' - Family, colleagues remember late West Linn middle school teacher
A YouTube video that Ben Hsieh made as an introduction to remote learning last April opens with the title "COVID-19 quarantine day 24" and shows Hsieh in his living room facing his cat, Sabrina, his hedgehog, Hufflepuff and his houseplant, Chris Anthony, each of whom had textbooks and pencils laid out in front of them.
"OK class, today we're going to try to learn about how to add fractions," Hsieh said while addressing his makeshift class of nonhuman students.
Throughout the video he told Sabrina to stop sitting on her book, reminded Hufflepuff that calculators weren't allowed, and told Chris Anthony to get his notebook out.
He becomes visibly frustrated with his "class."
At the end of the video, Hsieh looks into the camera and notices his actual sixth grade students.
"Wait a second. Are you guys back?" he said, walking closer to the camera. "Oh, my gosh. Thank goodness. I've missed you so much. Let's do some math."
This was how he welcomed students into a new and uncertain time — with humor and excitement.
Hsieh, a sixth grade math teacher at Rosemont Ridge Middle School, died unexpectedly of a heart attack over winter break at the age of 43.
His brother, Matt Hsieh, said Ben wanted to make learning fun and enjoyed watching his students grow to appreciate school.
"He achieved what many of us could not — the admiration and respect of middle schoolers," he said.
Rosemont Ridge math teacher Rob Hoisington said he enjoyed working closely with Hsieh the past two years.
He admired Hsieh's awareness of how to help kids understand the material, all while using humor.
"He had a way of joking that showed how much he loved kids, and me," Hoisington said. "I miss him so much."
Another teacher on his team, Julie Renn, said a student once told her that Hsieh wanted all students to learn math and that he helped everyone.
Renn said he was a great teacher, one from whom she was always learning.
"As a friend, Ben had the ability to make me laugh at myself and not take myself so seriously, which I tend to do," Renn said.
Rosemont Ridge Principal Debi Briggs-Crispin said she's thankful for the eight and a half years she worked with him.
"He touched so many children's lives and helped them to see themselves as mathematicians and to learn to persevere when working through challenging problems," Briggs-Crispin said. "He also taught them to find joy in simple moments and to see the importance of working together and helping one another."
Before the end of winter break, parents of Hsieh's students were notified of his death and invited to a Zoom session to gain strategies for supporting their children.
Once students returned to school, Briggs-Crispin said the whole school participated in "advisory classes" that gave students the opportunity to process their feelings and learn coping strategies for grief and loss. These classes took place every day last week.
"The advisory classes that were comprised of Mr. Hsieh's current students had additional teachers placed in those advisory classes to provide extra support," Briggs-Crispin said.
They also hosted a Zoom Student Support Space for students who were too overwhelmed to be in class. That space was staffed with counselors.
She added that when thinking of who to hire to take his teaching role, they wanted someone who knew Hsieh and could relate to what staff and students were feeling.
"We were so fortunate to be able to hire Heidi Davis who has been a parent in our community. Her sons had Mr. Hsieh as their teacher, and she has served as a long-term substitute teacher for us for many years," she said.
Renn hopes students are inspired by Hsieh's love for life.
"I was reminded recently that a lot of people say it would be nice to try a new activity, but Mr. Hsieh would go do it," she said. "If there is something you want to try, don't let your fear hold you back, as long as it is safe, of course."
Briggs-Crispin said the school will continue to support students and staff in the weeks and months to come as grief is a long-term process.
"Ben loved people, he loved life and we love him. He will be deeply missed," Briggs-Crispin said.
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