Jenny Cancello stood to make some extra money as an excellent teacher, but the plan made her so angry she wrote a scathing letter to the editor.
"Keep your bonus money,'' she told Florida politicians in 2006 after they decided to boost certain teachers' pay based on how their students performed on a controversial assessment test. "I work for my students, not the government. My bonus is, 'Mrs. Cancello, this is my favorite class.' 'Mrs. Cancello, I don't understand this, can you help me?' I have always worked my hardest for my students because I would never want to let them down. If I received extra money, I would just spend it on my students.''
She scolded lawmakers for excluding music and art teachers, whom she said work every bit as hard as she did teaching English at Seven Springs Middle School in Trinity. "Education is not a competition,'' she concluded. "It is a process that involves many teachers and parents. Can you put a price on education? Some things really are more important than money.''
This was vintage Jenny Cancello. Focused, direct. She stood just over 5 feet and weighed a little more than 100 pounds, but she could whisper and even the rowdiest kids in her class paid attention. "Respect,'' said her principal, Chris Dunning. "Her students knew she wanted them to succeed.''
She earned national board certification in English and language arts and in 2011 was honored as teacher of the year at Seven Springs. Meanwhile, Jenny and her husband Andrew, a manager for UPS, celebrated the academic and athletic accomplishments of their three teenage daughters, Katherine and identical twins Claudia and Elaina.
Jenny rose every weekday morning at 4 to run several miles before school. On weekends, she joined friends for longer runs through the hills around Brooksville and across the bridge at Sand Key. She had just completed her sixth marathon (26.2 miles) in Chicago and set her sights on the Boston Marathon. It seemed she could accomplish whatever she wanted, and then she got sick.
In January 2011, doctors diagnosed cervical cancer. She underwent surgery in March. By December, the disease had spread to other areas of her body and despite little chance of recovery, she accepted chemotherapy. When she lost her hair, she wrapped her head with a wool covering. Her daughters did the same for a picture on the couch with their dad and George, the family cockapoo. Katherine posted a caption on Facebook: "No hair, no problem.''
Despite the sickness, Jenny followed her twins as they excelled in track at Mitchell High School, earning full scholarships at the University of Tampa. She celebrated the younger daughter's rise as a champion swimmer at Mitchell. She stood with them for pictures in June as the twins graduated.
She badly wanted to see Claudia and Elaina run their first collegiate cross country race, but three weeks ago she fell in the bathroom at their home in Trinity. Andrew rushed her to a hospital emergency room. Her head injury turned out to be minor, but her doctor suggested it was time for hospice. She was admitted to the HPH Marliere Care Center.
Katherine visited each morning before school, curling up in bed with her mom and reading poems. George stayed by her side her until Andrew took him home at night. Jenny held on until Sept. 7, the day after her twins finished high enough in their first meet to make the traveling squad. Andrew was alone in the room with Jenny when she took her final breath at 2:15 a.m. She was 45.
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Thursday morning, as Andrew planned a memorial service, he shared a love story. He and Jenny Watterson were juniors at the University of South Florida in 1989 and lived in the same apartment complex. They both liked L.A. Law, but Jenny had a small black-and-white TV. "She came down to watch it with me,'' he recalled. "My TV was only 19 inches, but at least it was color.''
She had been a cheerleader at Miami Sunset High. Her dad was a homicide detective and ran to relieve stress. She ran with him. Andrew grew up in Pasco County and graduated from Hudson High. His family ran a deli in New Port Richey.
Andrew asked her on a date. They went to a movie: K-9, starring Jim Belushi. "I showed up in a muscle T-shirt,'' he recalled. "Not very impressive.''
Still, they clicked and in August 1991 married at St. James the Apostle Catholic Church in New Port Richey. Jenny landed a teaching job at Hudson Middle while Andrew worked his way up with UPS. The twins arrived in April 1994, two months premature. Claudia weighed 3 pounds, Elaina 2. They spent six weeks in the hospital before coming home with monitors attached to their tiny bodies. Katherine arrived three years later.
"Jenny was the best mom,'' said Kelly Bouffard, also a teacher and mother of three who became a friend and confidant when their children were young. "She put so much of herself in everything she did. I couldn't keep up with her. And even when she got sick, she spent more time trying to make us laugh and keep from worrying. I always thought she'd get better because she was so strong.''
Jenny Cancello's ashes will be spread at Sand Key where she loved to run near the Gulf of Mexico. Andrew plans to stay put in their home, at least until the girls are on their own.
"Their mom is everywhere in this house,'' he said. "She would expect us to carry on.''
His faith is strong.
"If God brought you to it,'' he said, "then you have to trust he'll bring you through it.''