A Pinellas art teacher savors her classroom, putting cancer and fear aside

ST. PETERSBURG — Rhonda Rayman can go on and on about the safety features in her art classroom at Lakewood Elementary School.

How she retrofitted pizza boxes so children can keep track of their own supplies. How she set up display racks and shower curtains to separate the kids’ tables. How she revamped the curriculum, making it heavy on videos, and stripped of lessons that are “hand-over-hand.”

It’s not enough to satisfy Rayman’s daughters, who are in their thirties and wonder why their mother — 58 and a recent cancer survivor — would set foot in a public school this year.

Art teacher Rhonda Rayman said she “knew the energy was right” at Lakewood Elementary, which is working to climb above its F grade from the state. [Courtesy of Rhonda Rayman]

Rayman herself can’t be sure how safe she is from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Sometimes she will slip into language that is almost fatalistic, how her students mean so much to her that “if my last days are helping them, well, I think I am good with that.”

Emotions have run high since July, when Florida’s 67 school districts were ordered to reopen, which led to heated debate and legal action over whether students and teachers would be safe from the virus.

Parents implored school leaders not to consign their children to learning from a video screen. Teachers protested that they were being forced to place their lives at risk. In Pinellas County, the teachers union is battling the district over the onerous duty of teaching in-person and at-home students simultaneously.

Quarantines are not thorough enough, teachers tell the Tampa Bay Times in emails. Cleaning supplies are lacking. There are too many new internet platforms to learn.

Rayman, while not one to discount anybody’s fear, has a different perspective.

After living in four states and raising two children through multiple careers, she found herself in a dream job, on the ground floor of Pinellas County’s effort to transform an F-graded St. Petersburg school.

“When I heard about Lakewood, I wanted it,” she said. She read about Learning Sciences International, a company the district brought in to help strengthen teaching practices at the school. And she liked the idea of working with Stephanie Woodford, the longtime Hillsborough County administrator who charted a new career in Pinellas’ high-poverty schools.

“I knew the energy was right,” Rayman said. “When you get with a group that is on a mission, holy cow, it’s so much fun.”

Then, one year in, a lump appeared in her abdomen. It was the size of a tennis ball, then the size and shape of a butternut squash. By the time she saw a doctor, it was cancer. It had spread to her liver, spleen and intestines.

She had surgery, then chemotherapy. Through it all, she worked. “They just made it so easy to keep coming to work,” she said of Woodford and her other supervisors, who refused to accept her resignation.

“And I’m so grateful they did. Because I don’t think I would have had the same exact outcome — I don’t know that. But I get energized by being with these kids.”

Rayman sees something of herself in the children at Lakewood, who historically have registered at the bottom of the academic charts.

Growing up south of Chicago, Rayman struggled in school. “I used to think there was something wrong with me,” she said. “And they did not design the curriculum to reach all abilities at that point. That was not the norm.”

When she discovered art, “I just flourished,” she said. “And once I got that, it meant I loved school and not just because it was art. I also loved learning. And my teachers would let me doodle and draw what I was learning.”

As an adult she taught art, illustrated children’s literature and launched a hands-on children’s art museum.

Rayman fashioned these pizza boxes to hold art supplies so her students at Lakewood Elementary won’t have to share during the pandemic. [Courtesy of Rhonda Rayman]

When she moved to Largo with her current life partner, she worked as a special education aide. It seemed like a job she could leave at the end of the day.

But she realized she was doing the work of a teacher for a lot less money. So when the opportunity came at Lakewood, where 25 percent of the students are either homeless or in foster care, she seized it.

“She sees art as something that is as necessary as reading and writing, and she does a lot of therapeutic art with the kids,” Woodford said. “She loves the kids. She takes a real interest in them.”

On March 5, doctors told Rayman she was cancer-free.

Right about then, the nation was coming to grips with the pandemic. “Everything just went poof,” Rayman said. “We were going to Italy this past summer. We never got to celebrate.”

Rayman made a video for her students and their parents about what to expect during the statewide shutdown. She wore a Chicago White Sox cap. It was the cancer, she told the audience nonchalantly, promising that her hair would grow back. She also put together supply kits for the kids.

Rayman came to a meet-the-teacher-night at Lakewood Elementary dressed in an oversized hippo costume. The get-up was fun, her principal said, and it kept her at a social distance. [Courtesy of Stephanie Woodford]

When it was time to reopen, Rayman was among the vast majority of Lakewood teachers — all but one, Woodford said — who wanted to teach in person instead of virtually. They are now on split schedules so they can do both, teaching simultaneously for part of the day as well.

Woodford said the school has taken extra precautions for Rayman. Her classes are kept relatively small. Teachers’ aides follow the children to art class, so there is always another adult in the room.

As for Rayman’s daughters:

“I yell at her,” said Eileen Heaney, 31, a financial planner in Milwaukee. “I mean, I’m joking. But I was trying to get her not to go. It’s really scary.”

Heaney knows her mother’s sunny disposition makes her a good influence on the students. And she knows there are a lot of reasons why Rayman appreciates this job so much. Earlier in her career, Heaney said, “she had to fight to get people to acknowledge how valuable her role was. For her to finally get somewhere, to get the resources to teach the kind of program she wants to teach, it’s huge.”

Heaney realizes families everywhere are making calculations of risk versus reward — although her mother’s situation is extreme, given her compromised immune system.

“They would like me to stay home in bubble wrap,” Rayman said of her daughters. She told them at one point there would be no children in her classroom. But “when the actual situation arises at school, I kind of go with the flow,” she said.

She isn’t fearful at school, she said — just at home when she watches the news. Her students are great at staying in their seats and keeping their masks on. The room has its own air conditioning unit.

Desks in Rayman’s art room at Lakewood Elementary are separated by see-through barriers and shower curtains. [Courtesy of Rhonda Rayman]

“Those kids, man, they give me so much life and joy,” Rayman said. “And art has gotten me through some trying times of my life. All through cancer, I was making paintings. I just know it’s a really good coping skill, and it’s a really good learning tool.

“It brings so much joy to me that I want to give that to kids.”

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