ST. PETERSBURG — The sealed letter went home with Lakeview Fundamental Elementary students on Feb. 3. It contained an important message from principal Susan Garcia-Nikolova to their parents, and students were told not to open it.
The letter bore sad news. Faylene Thompson, a physical education assistant at the school since 1998, had died the day before. She was 52. Mrs. Thompson had suffered from diabetes and other health problems.
Word spread over the weekend. A gregarious and maternal figure who had no biological children, Mrs. Thompson was a school favorite. Since all of Lakeview's students take a half-hour of P.E., colleagues estimate she influenced more than 2,000 students over 14 years. She taught them softball, hockey, fitness and fun.
"She was always talking about her kids — 'I gotta get there for my kids,' " said Charles Thompson, her husband of 23 years.
While the teaching position might have taken up most of her focus, it was not her only job. Mrs. Thompson was simultaneously juggling a florist business, a cleaning business, and helping her husband run his barbecue restaurant, Picnics & More.
Oh, and she also worked security at Tropicana Field.
On her own time, Mrs. Thompson attended her students' sports league games. She even collected aluminum cans for needy children at the school.
"This year, a little girl told us that her mother's car was robbed. It had all the Christmas presents in it," said P.E. teacher Jason Wood, Mrs. Thompson's teaching partner. "Faylene organized volunteers to give donations."
Through her fundraising, Mrs. Thompson bought presents for 15 to 20 children a year, Wood said.
"She was one of the hardest workers I've ever had," said Garcia-Nikolova, the school principal. "When she was ill or not feeling well, we would say, 'You need to go home.' "
A St. Petersburg native, Mrs. Thompson attended Boca Ciega High, where she played clarinet in the band. She worked as a P.E. assistant at Perkins Elementary from 1992 to 1997 before joining Lakeview Fundamental in 1998.
Appearances aside, Mrs. Thompson did know how to relax. She enjoyed taking in the occasional movie and fishing with her husband. But in recent months, she was able to do less.
Counselors from the school district's crisis team met with students at the school Monday. "We told the kids it was okay to be sad and to cry, and that's what we did during P.E.," Wood said. "We also shared happy stories — cool, funny things, sort of like a therapy session."
Mrs. Thompson's colleagues are also trying to stay positive, but it's tough. Said Garcia-Nikolova, "If we were all boo-hooing, she would probably want to just slap us and say, 'Snap out of it, you've got to worry about these kids.' "
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248.