Monday, September 26 , 2016, 1:30 pm | Fair 95º

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Open Alternative School Stunned By Sudden Death of Teacher Carmen Alexander

Students, staff and parents gather to remember the beloved mother of three, who died from a mysterious flesh-eating bacteria

Alejandra Tashma didn’t like the idea of a student teacher.

Twenty years ago, Tashma was teaching at Carpinteria’s Canalino Elementary School when she kept receiving messages from Carmen Alexander, who asked if she could shadow Tashma.

Carmen Alexander
Carmen Alexander

“She was persistent, and I kept getting messages from this Carmen,” Tashma said. “Everyone else was saying that we would like each other, but I didn’t want someone in my classroom, especially a student teacher who probably knew how to do everything better than me.” 

But after a day of working together, Tashma offered her a job. She didn’t know it then, but everything changed from the moment they met.

“It affirmed a belief in magic realism, that some things are destined, that our paths were linked without us knowing it,” said Tashma, who is now the principal of Open Alternative School in Santa Barbara. “So much was determined about our future from the moment we met.”

Since that moment they hit it off, they have been “inseparable,” according to Open Alternative School teacher and longtime friend Ann Silva. The friends embarked on new jobs at OAS, endured the loss of their mothers, went through childbirth and divorces. They probably expected to grow old with each other.

But the physically fit 43-year-old Alexander died unexpectedly Tuesday morning from a mysterious flesh-eating bacteria.

“I guess all of us are waiting for us to wake up from a bad dream,” Tashma said. “It’s just been so quick.”

Alexander was admitted to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital on Monday morning. Tashma said she first thought it was pneumonia, but she had no idea where the bacteria came from.

“It’s kind of a mystery,” Tashma said.

While many people are still in shock, Tashma said it’s important to embrace the sadness now so it’s easier to slowly remember the beautiful stories.

She said Alexander affirmed the power of love and redefined friendship.

“She taught me that friendship can go so far beyond gestures. It can take on an affinity for each other,” she said. “We were so bonded. I learned there’s joy from sharing joy with someone else, and there’s so much growth we do with another person we love.”

Alumni, parents, students and teachers celebrated Alexander’s life Wednesday morning as more than 300 people held hands in a giant circle on the OAS campus. Students prepared prayer flags, decorated with their letters to Alexander, which were hung across campus. Some left messages about Alexander on boards hung with white paper.

But amid the grief and memories, Tashma encouraged students to find a moment to laugh as hard as they could until their stomachs hurt — because that was something Alexander loved to do.

“It’s a huge tragedy for the community, but there’s so much light shining here today because everyone is talking about how wonderful she is,” Silva said. “Did you see the sunset last night? That was Carmen. Carmen has the biggest heart in the world. It was such a brilliant sunset as she was such a brilliant presence in all of our lives. It just changed colors and stayed with us for so long.”

Alexander had a love for teaching. She had an artistic nature, and taught an art and cooking camp during the summer. She was an avid hiker and recently took voice lessons so she could sing with her daughter, Sofia, according to Tashma. But most of all, she shared her love for beauty and life.

“The kids were saying how kind she was, how she would always say hello and stop for a hug,” Silva said. “Anyone who needed help, she was there.”

Tashma and Alexander went on a trip to Catalina over the summer where Tashma learned of Alexander’s fear of heights before their zip-lining adventure. Alexander said it would be a way to get over it.

“She wanted to see life. She didn’t strike it as being a spectator’s sport — she jumped in and got dirty,” Tashma said. “She realized that relationships are what give life meaning.”

A number of students, alumni and faculty left messages that described how Alexander always took the time to listen. One second-grader wrote a song for Alexander and decided to plant a tree where every year they could sing that song together.

“Her kindness would touch one person and it was a ripple effect. She had that power,” Tashma said. “And that memorial at school today was a testament to that.”

Alexander left behind her three children: Sofia, a freshman at Santa Barbara High School; Sasha, an OAS sixth-grader; and Pablo, who is in third grade. She also left behind her boyfriend, Mark Dower.

Silva said Alexander gave her kids a deep respect for who they are and showed them how to reach out to others.

“She will be remembered with the children she left us. They’re so polite and wonderful because of the example she set,” she said. “I think she would like the community to reach out to her family and support those kids.”

Although Tashma may have initially been resistant to change at Canalino Elementary, she said all it takes is one person to change everything.

“She was like having a star that shined,” Tashma said. “That’s what she will be for me forever, was a star that shined.”

Noozhawk business writer Alex Kacik can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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