“My Wife, The Lifelong Teacher, and Cancer”
“Mrs. V, Mrs. V, Hi Mrs. Valentino, how are you? You know you were my most favorite teacher. I always looked forward to going to your class. I knew it was only for one hour a day but I could hardly wait to get there. You were always so kind, so understanding and so caring. If I heard this conversation between my wife and her ex-students I heard it a hundred times. From Northern Montana to Southern California we would be out shopping or having a meal and I would sit quietly by and listen to what was being said. Regardless of the students’ background the conversation was always the same. It didn’t matter if the student had a gang background, lived on the streets or came from a wholesome family, the conversation was the same. A few times even I had to fight back tears.
In addition to being a classroom teacher for 50-plus years she also taught adult education classes two nights a week as well as summer school for 25 years. It was not uncommon (on adult ed nights) for her to put in 12 to 14 hrs per day. The types of classes she made a career out of teaching included opportunity room classes, special education classes at promise classes, partial day classes and in house suspension classes. After school she would hold independent learning classes where she would work one on one with students who had trouble learning the basic concepts of the curriculum. Basically, she taught the types of students that a number of other teachers preferred not to have in their classes. This was usually a result of large class sizes or that students had some king of an attitude problem. It was also because it is difficult teaching mainstreamed classes when some students should be in self-contained special education classes. Pull out programs for mainstreamed special education students does not work. Her classes usually averaged between 16 and 20 students, but she was always able to give a lot of personal attention to each student and keep them on task.
Over her 50-plus years she was a junior high teacher, a high school teacher, an adult education teacher, a resource teacher and a summer school teacher; but always a teacher. She did put in a few years as a special education department chairperson, but that was as close to being a non-teacher as she ever wanted to get. When she was a department chair she would get a prep period and a chair period as part of her six period day of teaching. That meant she only was teaching four regular periods a day. She worked with the counselor’s office to have students sent to her for assistance if the counselors thought that the students could benefit from being with her. She would work with students during the two periods she didn’t have her own classes. She loved being around students who needed help or students who had problems of one sort or another. She was so student oriented she even changed my own teaching philosophy. When I just started teaching I was a subject-oriented teacher. I figured as long as I did a good job covering the curriculum I was doing my job. I really didn’t concentrate on focusing if the students were really learning or not. If they failed they failed; it wasn’t my fault. I did my job; they didn’t do theirs.
By the time I finished the teaching portion of my career I really cared if each student had learned enough about the curriculum that they might use it somehow later in life. I went from being a subject-oriented teacher to being a student-oriented teacher. I still believe we need a lot more student-oriented teachers in our public schools today, especially at the elementary, junior high and high school levels. Subject-oriented teachers should only exist at the college level.
In 2001, two years before we retired, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a fast moving cancer. It had spread to such a point that a team of doctors had to go in and remove both breasts, all of her lymph nodes and use half of her abdominal muscles to build two new breasts. The operation was known as a double-Tram-flap procedure. It lasted seven and a half hours. She spent the next two years receiving chemo and radiation treatments that always caused her to become extremely tired. But she continued to teach.
At the end of those treatments she was told that there was only a 2% chance that the disease would ever return. In 2014 it metastasized into her stomach and her bone marrow. She was given six months to a year and a half to live. She passed on Jan. 19, 2020. During that period of time she was on constant chemo and was told she would be on it for the rest of her life, and she was. She still continued to substitute teach. She had built up such a reputation for herself as a substitute teacher that she became the first teacher the Bigfork School District would contact when they needed a long-term sub. She never said no.
The first 17 years we taught, I taught and coached. One night at dinner in front of our kids she asked me how much longer I was going to coach. I said probably until I retire. She said, “OK, you have to make a decision.” I said, “What decision?” “I am a full-time mom, a full-time wife, a full-time teacher, a full-time house keeper and all you do is coach and teach. You need to decide if you want to continue to coach and be single or do you want to start being a father to our kids and a husband to me?” That ended my coaching career; at least I got 17 years in. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. The time I was putting in coaching was now going to be used to spend more time with my kids, my wife and our pets. And, on top of that, I got to reminisce about the championship teams that I had coached. Thanks to the wife. She never passed up an opportunity to teach or make others think about what was really important.
On Jan.19, 2020, at 4 p.m. my wife passed away. She lost her 18-year battle with cancer. I think cancer is the ugliest disease a human being can be diagnosed with. My wife fought the disease for 18 years, went through three major surgeries and finally lost the battle. I thank the pharmaceutical companies for spending time and money on finding many treatments for cancer and allowing people to live a few more years, but what would be wrong with spending the same time and money on finding a cure or cures? I would hate to thinks it’s about money.
A celebration of life will be held on Feb. 1 at Scottibelli’s from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
My Wife’s Chronological Career
September 1968-June 1969 — Student teacher at Washington Junior High Pasadena, California
September 1969-June 1976 — Junior high teacher and student council adviser at Northrup Elementary School, Alhambra, California
September 1976-June 1986 — Special Education teacher at Mark Keppel High School Alhambra, California
September 1986-June 1987 — Long-term substitute teacher in Special Education at Kalispell Junior High School, Kalispell
September 1987-June 1988 — Special Education teacher at Bigfork Junior High, Bigfork
September 1988-June 2003 — Special Education teacher and Department Chair at Mark Keppel High School Alhambra, California
September 2003-December 2019 — Substitute teacher in Bigfork Schools, Bigfork (averaged 3 ½ days a week)