Retired Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher receiving care from former students, PPS alumni |
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Cynthia Falls applauds during a Pittsburgh Promise event held at A.J. Palumbo Center at Duquesne University on Wednesday May 17, 2017.

Cancer isn’t the only thing that spreads.

Cindy Falls knew her family history put her at risk for breast cancer. But no amount of preparation could soften the blow when she was diagnosed in November.

“All kind of things go through your head,” said Falls, 63, a retired Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher and vocational instructor, and current school board member.

First, she sought a breast surgeon, and found Dr. Raye Budway, at St. Clair Hospital.

“I’m a retired teacher,” she told Budway in conversation.

“Really? Well, I’m a PPS graduate,” said Budway, who attended Brashear High School.

Next, she needed a radiology oncologist and found Dr. Robert Werner, medical director at UPMC Cancer Center.

Turns out he also went to PPS, from first through 12th grade, and graduated from Taylor Allderdice High School.

Finally, she met her radiation therapist: Nikki Ober.

“As soon as the chart was handed to me and I saw the name, I knew who it was,” recalled Ober, 33, a Carrick High School grad. “She was the one who got into me into the health field. I went in and gave her a big hug.”

Teacher and student, embracing, cried that day.

Then it occurred to Falls that every doctor and specialist treating her cancer was a product of the often-maligned Pittsburgh Public Schools system.

“My life was in their hands,” Falls said. “It was very calming to me. I said, ‘I know that you know how to treat patients. Let’s move forward.’ ”

As word spread that Falls was ill, she started hearing from former students.

There was Don Holloman, who more than 20 years ago was the handsome cool kid at Oliver High School, the type of student who did just enough to get by. Then he walked into Falls’ classroom, eyed her suspiciously and asked: “What can you teach me?”

“I’ll figure it out,” said Falls, who was in her first year of teaching. “And I’ll make you a deal. I heard you’re a good dancer.”

“Yeah,” he said.

“I tell you what: You teach me a new dance move every day and I promise I’ll teach you something new every day.”

So at the start of every class, Holloman showed her a dance move. Falls did her best, the students laughed and made jokes, and Falls did not stop them. She was determined to connect, especially with a kid like Holloman, who had the talent but lacked the drive.

Holloman, 39, is CEO of Memphis Health Center, in Tennessee, which cares for 60,000 patients a year.

“And I’m a kid from the inner city of Pittsburgh,” he said. “She was one of the first teachers to actually believe in me and actually push me.

“Before then, I was just the cool guy who got by. But she saw more in me. She pushed me to do more. She has a passion to come down to your level and gain your trust. And she’s with you to the end.”

Then there was Demetrius Titus, who was a junior when his mom was diagnosed with cancer. He stopped going to school, as everyone in his family had before him.

But when his senior year rolled around, Titus decided that he wanted to break that chain. He went to see an academic counselor at Carrick High who told him he had a lot of ground to make up. Step one was to get into a health class taught by Falls.

When they met, Titus was wearing a black hoodie.

“Take your hood off,” Falls instructed.

Titus obeyed.

“And look me in the eyes when I’m talking to you.”

They saw each other. Within minutes, Falls decided he was worth fighting for.

“I mean, that was one of the first things she ever said to me: ‘I’ll fight for you,’ ” Titus said. “No one had ever said that before. I was like, ‘Who is this lady?'”

Falls and the counselor put together a demanding schedule that would allow Titus to graduate. She stayed late after school with him and helped him study, all year.

Everything was going well, until Titus’s first-period teacher told Falls that Titus was having trouble making it to school on time. If the teen was late just a few more times over the final several months of the academic year, he would fail.

“Write down your address,” Falls said when she next saw Titus.

He thought she was going to tell on him to his mom.

But the next morning at 6:30 a.m., Falls was at his house, honking her car horn.

He said he’d been sleeping and wasn’t ready.

She said she’d wait.

From that day on, Falls drove Titus to school every morning.

“Oh, he hated it,” Falls said. “But it changed both of our lives. I remember that first day we met, I looked in his eyes and I saw the hurt and pain, and I just knew it was a bad life. I said to him, ‘Let’s go, we got a lot of work to do.’ ”

Titus graduated, joined the Army and was deployed overseas. Now 26, he is a government contractor, a husband and a father to a little girl.

“I think about where I would be if I’d never met her,” Titus said. “Honestly, I’d be either dead or in jail.”

A Google news search of Pittsburgh Public Schools nets headlines about non-violence initiatives, plans to close the achievement gap, and stories of pencils being used as a weapon — because those looking in from the outside get hung up on promotions, Falls said, on achievements that are easy to score.

But it’s a big world. Especially when it’s outside the right classroom.

“Success comes in many forms,” she said.

Learning to dance. Waking up on time. Fighting cancer.

“I believe in public school education,” said Dr. Werner, whose parents and children also graduated from PPS schools. “My father believed that PPS provided an education that wasn’t just academic, but social — you learned to deal with people of all types — and I agree with him. … I live in Pittsburgh and I’m happy to pay the taxes because it allows me to give back to the system that helped me.”

Falls’ cancer treatment is working. The surgery was a success, the radiation treatments are over and her prognosis is good.

Because cancer isn’t the only thing that spreads.

“There’s a lot of good kids out there doing a lot of good things,” Falls said. “And I am so proud of them.”

Chris Togneri is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632, [email protected] or via Twitter @ChrisTogneri.

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