By Kelley Caponigro
Assistant to the Chairman & CEO
Now that school is out, we want to thank all of the teachers for their dedication and impact that they have on society. We thought you might appreciate the following story written in memory of an outstanding educator and dear friend. Perhaps it will strike a personal memory of your favorite teacher. We hope you will enjoy this brief break from our usual financial topics, and take the time to meet Miss Perrotto through the eyes of her family, friends, and colleagues.
The current education system in America is increasingly inundated with negativity. Newspaper headlines are riddled with Common Core debates and teacher-student scandals. Salaries are constantly questioned and summer vacations are scrutinized. Meanwhile today’s youth is a product of “helicopter parenting,” with information available 24/7 at their impressionable fingertips. Bullying has reached a new extreme, and where once teacher and parent stood together in unison, it seems that the teacher now stands alone.
With all of these unpleasant issues and bad publicity, it’s easy to forget that teaching is about passion. It’s about shaping the minds and hearts of future generations. It’s the ability to transfer knowledge while remaining understanding, compassionate and patient. It’s about learning to grow old without necessarily growing up. It’s about creating a presence in the classroom that demands respect, and simultaneously allowing students to have fun while learning. To help remind us that education is supposed to be a positive subject, consider the legacy of monumental educator, Janine Perrotto.
For 27 years, Perrotto taught elementary education in the West Islip School District. She worked in three buildings which eventually closed, Captree, Emil D. Masera, and Westbrook, and lastly at Oquenock. She was well-known throughout the district as an outspoken advocate for early intervention in reading, a passion for making every student feel important, and an infectious laugh.
“Janine wanted to be a teacher from day one,” claimed her mother Helene Perrotto. As evidenced by the cartons of letters she saved from students and parents each year, she excelled in her profession. She was certified in Elementary and Special Education and held an Administrator’s degree as well. However, she opted to remain a classroom teacher and taught her beloved first grade for most of her career. “She always said, ‘magic happens in first grade,’” laughed Helene.
Among Perrotto’s goals were to instill self-confidence in her students which she felt was necessary for them to reach their full potential. She also made learning fun, whether that meant dancing to grab their attention; singing deliberately off-key; imitating a character in a story; or using Cheerios to teach counting. Her students were often quoted saying, “Miss Perrotto makes us laugh.” They truly loved her and connected with her teaching style.
At the start of every school year Perrotto would read a book to the parents called, “Leo the Late Bloomer” at open school night. Her message to them was not to compare one child to another, and to understand that each child develops in their own time.
Former student Cristian Murphy recalls having an instant connection with Perrotto when he was in her 1998 first-grade class. Murphy was born in Romania and moved to America at age two to live with his adoptive parents. “The adoption process was very life-altering, and I think that because of it, when I went to school I had this constant feeling of not fitting in. Miss Perrotto was one of the first people outside of my parents that made me feel really welcomed. That’s huge for any kid, but especially for someone who already felt like an outsider,” Murphy said. The next year while Murphy was in second grade, the school hosted a Grandparents Day. He recalls being confused and upset because all of his grandparents had passed. “Miss Perrotto asked her own parents to sit in as my ‘grandparents’ for the day. From that day forward our families became very close. What do you call it when someone shares their own parents with you?” he asked.
Although Murphy and Perrotto clearly had a special connection, he maintains that it never tiptoed into favoritism. She held every student in the same regard, and made a connection with every child.
“Teaching wasn’t a job to her. She wasn’t coming in and putting on a suit and saying, ‘Ok, I’m going to be a great teacher now.’ She was great and fair to everyone, all the time,” Murphy said.
Every year a teacher is selected from each elementary building in the district and honored at “recognition night,” to which colleagues, family and friends are invited. A colleague of each honoree briefly speaks on his or her behalf. In 2004 when Murphy was in Junior High, Janine was chosen “Teacher of the Year” from Westbrook and the PTA asked him if he would speak about Miss Perrotto. At just 12 years old, Murphy showed up to the ceremony in a suit and tie and brought down the house with his heartfelt speech.
“My dad and I wrote that speech together,” Murphy claimed. “I was never nervous or scared. I actually loved it. I think that’s when I realized that I wanted to follow in Miss Perrotto’s footsteps.” In his speech, Murphy addresses a giant sign posted on Pinelawn Road by the cemetery that reads, ‘We never stand so tall as when we stoop to help a child,’ and claimed, “That just about makes Miss Perrotto the tallest person in this room.“
Oquenock Elementary School Principal, Jack Maniscalco admits, “I may be the Principal of this school, but Janine was in charge. More students and parents came back to visit Janine than anyone I know. She loved all of her students and because she was so great at giving them individual attention she often ended up with some of the more difficult children. In fact, Janine had a very difficult class at Westbrook Elementary School, and when she and I moved to Oquenock mid-year, she was the only teacher that requested to have those same, difficult students back in her class. That was the type of individual that she was.”
In September 2012 Janine was diagnosed with Uterine Cancer. She underwent extensive surgery followed by intensive Chemotherapy treatments for several months. All of her colleagues came together and raised nearly $600 in a matter of days for a get-well gift. A Pandora bracelet was chosen and was presented to her. “That bracelet came with her during every cancer treatment. It was her lucky charm,” said Perrotto’s father, John. The charm must have worked because after a year-long battle, Janine was cancer free. She even walked the survivor lap in June 2013 at a school-sponsored 24 hour Cancer Walk.
During the September 2013 school year Janine began having some pain and discomfort. Her friend and colleague David Haas recalls, “In December she went to the doctor to get checked out. She called me and was just elated that her PET scan came back clean.” Even though she was in remission, the doctor told Janine that the majority of the people with her type of cancer don’t make it to the 5 year mark. She knew that the chances of the cancer coming back were at 75-80%, but she didn’t dwell on that.
By January 2014 the pain was persistent, and Janine was diagnosed with a new, unrelated Cancer called Neuroendocrine tumors. It is a rare and swiftly growing Cancer affecting only a small number of people each year, and for which there is no known successful treatment.
“The doctor actually told her that she couldn’t believe she was looking at new scans from the same patient whose scans she had seen just one month ago,” said Haas. “Janine said to me, ‘David, cancer is going to take me out, but I’m in control. I’m teaching until the end,’ and she did; she went from the classroom directly to the hospital.”
On February 19, 2014, Janine lost her battle with cancer.
“She talked about how horrible it would be if she died while everyone was away during Winter Break – because they would feel bad for going away and not being able to say goodbye. She was dying a painful death, and was worried about how everyone else would feel. That’s the type of person she was,” said friend and colleague Kelly Parson. Parson’s daughter was a former student of Perrotto’s.
“My daughter would come home and tell me she was Miss Perrotto’s favorite student. I don’t know how she did it, but she made every student feel as though they were her favorite, and every parent felt that their child was her favorite,” said Parson.
To honor Perrotto, the Oquenock School created the Janine Perrotto Memorial Library Collection and Reading Corner, affectionately called “Miss Perrotto’s Purple Paradise,” within the Oquenock Library Media Center. The area was repainted and beautifully decorated in shades of purple – Perrotto’s favorite color. There is a lovely plaid sofa, area rugs and bean bag chairs to sit on. The shelves are stocked with mostly new books, among which were Perrotto’s favorites – geared towards young readers from kindergarten through second grade. Several mementos from Janine’s home adorn the area. It is a place that entices children to visit often and spurs their desire to read – a fitting memorial to Perrotto’s legacy. In addition, a memorial tree was planted in the elementary school courtyard – next to Perrotto’s classroom.
The school sponsored another 24 hour cancer walk this past June, parts of which were dedicated to Janine.
“Several parents came up to us at the cancer walk and presented us with a large plaque. They had purchased a star in the Orion complex registered in Switzerland in Janine’s name. I had never heard of that. Then, when it got dark, the bleachers on one whole side of the football field held candles inside of bags that read ‘Miss P’ with a big heart. That was quite something,” Helene said humbly.
It was Murphy, of course, that gave the eulogy at Perrotto’s funeral. To paraphrase his eloquently written sentiment would be criminal. He said, “Miss Perrotto never held a class on compassion, unequivocal love, or pure kindness. She never wrote the words hope, faith or joy on the blackboard. There were no handouts on trust, or strength and determination in the face of adversity, but you would be remiss if you didn’t see those lessons from her. They were her; she lived them every day for everyone to see.” Today, Murphy is working towards obtaining his Master’s degree at Fordham University in religious education; a path he credits to Perrotto.
“She just found a way to connect with every child,” Haas commented. “Even though she was sick during her final days of teaching, she was so concerned with being able to connect with one little boy in particular. She felt that she wasn’t getting through to him. If you look at the bulletin board in the library every student in her last class signed a paper heart, and if you find that young boy’s heart it says, ‘Miss Perrotto, I love you.’ She did connect,” he said.
After interviewing Miss Perrotto’s family, friends and colleagues, I feel that she embodied the passion of my fifth grade teacher, who literally did a headstand in front of the classroom to get our attention; or my psychology professor who made learning about Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy amusing. Perhaps she was your seventh grade soccer coach, or your eleventh grade history teacher. She represents the educator that stands out in your mind as one of the greats; the one that challenged you, made a difficult subject fun, or simply made you laugh. Her legacy helps to make up for all of the awful headlines, and the negative connotations that are sadly associated with the professionals instilling knowledge into future generations.
In addition to recognizing the incredible work that Janine Perrotto did during her time, the lives she effected and the ripples of achievements she ignited, let’s take a moment to celebrate all of the great teachers, past, present and future, that dedicate their entire lives to “making magic happen.”
If this article made you think about your favorite teacher, I urge you to take the time to write them a “thank you” note.
The views and information expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of R.W. Rogé & Company, Inc.