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Sunday, January 20 , 2019, 4:36 am | Fair 47º


For Donna Talarico, a Class Act May Be Her Most Memorable Lesson

Battling non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a beloved Kellogg School teacher steps aside while her students and her colleagues bear witness to a lifetime of teaching moments

For Donna Talarico, it has always been about school. As a young child in Indiana, she would come straight home from school ... only to pretend she was back at school.

For newly retired Kellogg School teacher Donna Talarico, one of the best things about teaching is that
For newly retired Kellogg School teacher Donna Talarico, one of the best things about teaching is that “every year is a new beginning.” (Talarico family photo)

“I would come home and play school with my brother,” said the former Kellogg School teacher.

Maybe it was the mind-stimulating environment that did it for the naturally curious young student, or maybe it was the influence of her own teachers. Whatever it was, it became apparent to her that teaching children was what she was meant to do.

“The teachers were very kind, and made me feel comfortable and successful,” said Talarico. “It was a very positive learning experience.”

Luckily for her students, particularly those at Kellogg, Talarico has been able to duplicate that environment year in and year out for almost 45 years.

“Every year is a new beginning,” she told Noozhawk recently. “That’s one of the best things about teaching.”

Talarico first made her way to California in the late 1960s. Back then, she was Mrs. Fox, married to a high school teacher.

“In those days they were begging teachers to come out,” she said. In the Los Angeles area, the rapid population growth called for more schools, which in turn called for more teachers. Her then-husband was also a golfer, which made California all the more attractive.

In 1966 they landed their first California gigs in the San Dimas area, in the suburbs east of Los Angeles.

“Things were very different,” she said. “I was surprised at how much (the schools) gave the students.” Back in Indiana, she explained, the responsibility for books and school supplies fell to the families of the students. In California, the kids were given all their books, pencils, paper, even Kleenex, if they needed it.

As different as things were, for Talarico, the joy was the same: working with children and watching them learn.

If it weren’t for her native curiosity, she may never have wound up in the Goleta Valley. The year was 1967 and she came up to Santa Barbara on spring break. Shortly after she got to talking to Isla Vista School principal Joseph Albon and then-Goleta Union School District Superintendent Ian Crow, she got a job at Isla Vista Elementary.

Her years teaching in the Goleta Valley were not always easy ones. In 1970, the anti-war rioting in Isla Vista had her fearing for the safety of her charges, as UCSB students protested the Vietnam War and police rolled in to assert their authority and control.

“It was a frightening time,” she recalled.

In 1973, she moved to Cathedral Oaks School, where she taught for “four wonderful years” before the school closed as a result of declining enrollment.

What started as an unfortunate situation became a boon for Kellogg School and Talarico, when in 1978 she started teaching first grade at the campus at 475 Cambridge Drive.

“Every grade is important,” said Talarico, who added that she felt the most responsibility teaching first grade.

“I wanted every child to read when they left that grade,” she said. She was also partial to P.E. and geography.

“There was never a day I didn’t look forward to getting out of bed and being in school,” she said. “I wish everyone felt that way about their jobs.”

If you ask her colleagues, Talarico’s enthusiasm was obvious: showing up at 6:30 in the morning to get a head start, staying after school hours and going home in time to cook for her husband, Joe Talarico.

“I told her, ‘you’d think by now you’d know how to do it,’” he quipped in response to the long hours she spent on campus.

But it was more than teaching the students that Talarico was doing. She had also started mentoring the younger teachers and supporting them with their work.

So when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in February, it was nothing short of a shock.

“I decided through many tears that the best thing was to retire,” she said. She wasn’t ready, not by a long shot, she said, but in her typical considerate way felt it would be more fair to the school if she just stepped aside. Just as she had gone out of her way to help others at school, people stepped in to fill the gap she was so reluctant to leave.

“A wonderful full-time substitute teacher, Richard Huff, came out of retirement to help take over,” she said. “We were blessed.”

On the Talaricos’ coffee table sits a vase — a vase of handcrafted “flowers,” each bearing a face of the students Talarico had been teaching before her fateful diagnosis.

“I miss them terribly,” she said, blinking back tears. “I miss them all.” But, she said it would be easier if the students didn’t see her, both for emotional and health reasons. Between treatments, she’s been keeping up a correspondence with her colleagues through cards, calls, letters and e-mails.

Still, her strengths are in her acceptance and positivity. If she can’t continue teaching, she’ll be back as a volunteer or a substitute. Only now, she’ll also be incorporating more extracurricular activities into her life, like traveling to her beloved Maui and spoiling the grandchildren.

“This was meant to be,” she said. “But I will be coming back.”

Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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