Lifestyle & Human Interest

After Beloved Teacher Dies of Cancer, Son Takes Over His Classroom


Anyone who has dealt with a cancer diagnosis or lost a loved one to the dreaded disease knows that it affects more than just the ill individual. Cancer affects everyone around it.

Yes, we all know how spouses and young children suffer. But have you ever stopped to consider that a person’s wider social network often struggles to deal with cancer?

You don’t have to look any further than a school in Ventura, California, to see it. In fact, if you were to approach the property, you would see evidence of the illness’ impact before ever setting foot on the campus.

According to KEYT, ATLAS Elementary shared a special tribute to a former teacher. Blue cups pressed through the gaps in the chain link fence spell out a simple message: “We love Mr. Williamson.”

Sadly, this beloved math teacher won’t get to see it. See, John Williamson passed away from cancer.

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His passing hit his students hard. They were candid about their emotional struggles in the wake of the loss.

“It was a struggle for me, because I’ve know him for so long and he was really a great person in my life. He made me laugh and happy when I came to school,” 5th grade student Layla Maria said.

Classmate Benjamin Everard described himself as “very sad. Kind of angry and I don’t know why. But mostly just sad.”

Such reactions aren’t uncommon. Western Youth Services has explained the need to tangibly support youth in such situations, nothing, “Coping with death, loss, and grief is challenging at any stage of life. For children and young adults, it is often perceived as a form of abandonment.”

Thankfully, the principal of ATLAS Elementary understood the challenges faced by her young charges. And she had an ingenious way to help them by putting a familiar face in the room.

Williamson’s son, Matthew Williamson, ended up taking over his father’s classroom just 48 hours after the elder Williamson died.

Affectionately dubbed “Mr. 2.0,” Matthew had been a substitute teacher at the school on and off for two years and stepped in for his father both while he was out and after his passing.

“My goal was to have a Williamson in that room to finish out the year with his class,” Matthew shared with the Ventura Unified School District. “My dad had these same students in the fourth grade, they knew him well, respected and loved him and this was going to be just as hard on them as it was on us. His classroom was his legacy. Up until the last few days of his life he always talked about his classroom, that was everything to him, his students.”

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“As his condition worsened I was like, ‘OK, I can take this position for the rest of the year,’” Matthew said to KEYT. “I want them to have a Williamson in that room.”

Those were big shoes to fill. Jennifer Duston, ATLAS Principal, told VUSD about John’s interview.

“We were a few questions in, and I asked John, ‘Why do you want to come to ATLAS?’ He said, ‘I want to find a home. A place I can make a difference.’ Something clicked. I knew then and there that John was the perfect fit for our school and I wasn’t wrong.”

His students were thrilled to have John’s son teaching them. However, the tangible reminder of their late instructor brought them all both joy and pain.

“I think the rest of my classmates are happy and overjoyed that his son got to be our teacher,” Layla said to KEYT. “I think they both look very similar and they both laugh the same and they both have glasses so it is very hard for me sometimes because it brings back old memories that I had with the original Mr. Williamson.”

“I want to provide some stability for them, to be there to talk to, that is such a big part of the job,” Matthew said to the VUSD. “They are scared of what lies ahead in middle school. I need to be there and show up for them, no matter what is happening in my life.”

Matthew’s mother, Trisha Williamson, said that her husband never wanted the focus to be on himself and that “he did not want a funeral because he knew that that would take people out of their classrooms.”

“The children have been a big dose of normal for us,” she added. “Portola, ATLAS, and the entire district have been phenomenal in supporting all three of us through John’s illness. We never felt alone.”

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A graduate of Wheaton College with a degree in literature, Loren also adores language. He has served as assistant editor for Plugged In magazine and copy editor for Wildlife Photographic magazine.
A graduate of Wheaton College with a degree in literature, Loren also adores language. He has served as assistant editor for Plugged In magazine and copy editor for Wildlife Photographic magazine. Most days find him crafting copy for corporate and small-business clients, but he also occasionally indulges in creative writing. His short fiction has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines. Loren currently lives in south Florida with his wife and three children.
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