- Associated Press - Saturday, October 1, 2016

NAPLES, Fla. (AP) - In 2015, one word changed Cheri Gimenez’s world. Cancer.

Last year, she started feeling weak, and had a sore throat so she visited a local health clinic. At that time, the Manatee Elementary School teacher was on summer break, and she was taking classes to become a reading specialist.

“The doctor that examined me was an older doctor, and thank goodness for her because she said, ‘I just don’t like the looks of this. You need to get a scan right away,’” the 62-year-old Gimenez recalled.

Monday, she underwent a positron emission tomography (PET) scan.

Tuesday, the results were in. Stage IV throat cancer.

Wednesday, she saw an oncologist.

Friday, she saw the radiologist.

The next week, she started radiation and chemotherapy. Gimenez opted out of surgery. Since the cancer was located at the base of her neck and the back of her throat, she lost the ability to talk, and has gradually regained it through therapy.

With the 2015-2016 fall school season quickly approaching, Gimenez worried that she wouldn’t be able to teach her third grade students.

However, her 23-year-old daughter, Rachel Elliott, stepped into the classroom to help both her mother and the school.

One school year later

With Elliott still learning the ropes of teaching, and Gimenez recovering, the pair works together every day during their planning period, and the last period of class to pass on double the knowledge to their students.

When the clock strikes 2 p.m., Elliott’s third graders shift into the adjoining classroom, and join other third graders to learn about various subjects, such as social studies, from Elliott, and her mom.

Class moves quickly and effortlessly as Gimenez teaches students about the difference between suburban, urban and rural landscapes as Elliott moves the PowerPoint slides accordingly. Together, they interact with their students, and roll open a map of the United States, pinpointing important landmarks. When the bell rings at 2:50 p.m., signaling the end of the school day, the duo says goodbye to their students, and cleans up their respective classrooms.

Gimenez has lived and breathed teaching since 1976. She’s taught related arts, kindergarten and third, fourth and fifth grade.

“I’ve seen full circles of education come round and repeat itself over and over again,” she said inside her daughter’s classroom after school in early September.

Gimenez began her teaching career in Ohio, and moved down to Naples with her late husband, son and Elliott (who was in eighth grade at the time), so her daughter could swim year-round as a competitive swimmer.

Elliott had just graduated from the University of South Carolina (USC) when she learned about her mom’s illness, and had already signed on to coach a swim team in South Carolina for the summer season.

“She was telling me, ‘Don’t come, finish,’” Elliott said.

Gimenez added, “I knew I was going to be really sick for a while, so I thought it was better to leave her there and let me see what happens here.” At that time, Gimenez was engaged to her second husband, who’s a middle school teacher. She lost her first husband, Elliott’s father, three years ago.

When the swim season finished up, Elliott moved back home temporarily to help her mom.

“The third day I moved back in here, she collapsed in the shower, and she was in the hospital,” Elliott said. “I have to say that was the one time where I didn’t think I was going to see her come out of the hospital.”

Gimenez was in the hospital for about a month, and was sent home to recover.

Even through her worst days, Gimenez couldn’t shake off the fact that she wouldn’t be able to teach her students the upcoming school year.

What would happen to her students, she thought.

The remedy

What would happen to her students, she thought. Elliott stepped into the classroom as a long-term substitute teacher that year.

Gimenez, who has had a long friendship with Manatee Elementary’s principal, Wendy Borowski, asked if her daughter cold teach her third-grade class. Gimenez would help out when she could.

Borowski agreed to the idea, allowing Elliott to sub Gimenez’s class for the 2015-16 school year.

“I took that chance, and everything (turned out) great,” Borowski said.

At that time, Elliott had just completed her bachelor’s in public health from the USC, and always had a passion for swimming. She competitively swam at Gulf Coast High School in Naples, and was recruited to South Carolina. She never thought of becoming a teacher, and wanted to spend a year after college traveling, and engaging in outdoor activities, such as tubing, that she couldn’t normally do on a swimmer’s schedule.

Those plans changed.

“(My mom) got sick and she wanted someone to sub her class so she would have an idea of what’s going on because we thought she’d be coming back last year and she didn’t. So I had her class for the whole year,” Elliott said.

Teaching was second nature to Elliott.

Growing up, she’d seen her mom teach, and so she took everything she learned into her own classroom.

Her mom had no doubts that she’d succeed.

“She knew how to set up a classroom, and she knew what I expected from the kids,” Gimenez said.

As time passed, Gimenez started gaining strength. Her last two PET scans showed no signs of cancer. She knew then it was time to return to class at the start of the 2016-17 school year.

Gimenez now teaches in the classroom beside Elliott‘s. All that separates them is an adjoining door.

At Manatee Elementary, teachers are assigned into teams of two, and alternate their classrooms for different subjects, Borowski said.

But Gimenez and Elliott wanted a chance to teach their classes together as a team.

“They approached me if they could be a team, and the enthusiasm they brought inspired me to give it a try. They’ve been working all summer with ideas (for the upcoming school year), so when you get that level of investment, it’s going to be a win win situation,” Borowski said.

Gimenez and Elliott’s students were dumbfounded when they found out the teachers were related.

“They said, ‘That’s your mom? You work with your mom?’” Elliott recalled, laughing. She’s already learned so much from her mom. “I’ve seen her teach, but not when I’m responsible for kids myself…So now, I get to see her do what she loves to do, and it’s so exciting this year because she did miss it so much last year. You could tell, even when she was super, super sick she would always wanted to hear about the kids. It’s her identity.”

“It was a long year in that bed,” Gimenez added.

The 2016-17 school year is Elliott’s first official year as a certified teacher. She also coaches the swim team at Naples High School.

For now, the mother-daughter team is happy working together, but Gimenez said she doesn’t want her daughter to feel obligated to remain a teacher forever.

While Elliott doesn’t know what the future might hold for her, she’s learned many unforgettable lessons from her mom that she will take with her wherever she goes.

“She does everything for other people, she doesn’t take a lot of credit for herself, and that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned from her,” Elliott said.

___

Information from: Naples (Fla.) Daily News, https://www.naplesnews.com

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