Suburban St. Louis teacher lives by mom's dying wish

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Brittany walked into Rob Durham's language arts class upset.

She couldn't stop thinking about her father, who had recently left her and her mother. It was her freshman year at Marquette High School in the Rockwood School District, and she was struggling. She crossed her arms on her desk, put her head down and cried.

Rob moonlights as a stand-up comic. He is used to his students laughing in class. Brittany was weeping. It was clear she was in trouble. He walked over to her and asked if she needed to leave, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ( ) reports.

After class, she unloaded all her problems to him: Her sisters were sick, her father was gone, her life felt upside-down.

Rob, 37, recognized her grief. He told her about a moment when he was her age that changed his life. He shared with Brittany, then 14, a story he hadn't told his students before.

He told her what his mother said to him shortly before she died.

JenAnn Durham raised her family in a small town an hour north of Columbus, Ohio. She was a mom like so many others at the time. She would baby-sit other people's children in her home while raising her own. Later she sold cosmetics, similar to Mary Kay. When her oldest child started high school, she started working as a secretary. She catered to her family's needs, and with a spouse who frequently worked long days and nights as a high school coach, she carried the load at home.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 44. For the next two years, she stayed upbeat, convincing her family she would win this battle. She went through the chemotherapy and radiation and even traveled to at treatment center in Zion, Illinois, where she stayed two weeks at a time.

"She'd come back and roll back to day-to-day life — raising three kids, back to school, games and homework," her daughter, Susan Moloney said.

Rob never doubted his mother would make it. He was the middle child, a quiet kid who ran track and cross country and played basketball. Other than a few people, his classmates had no idea what he was going through.

A few weeks after Brittany's meltdown at her desk, the class worked in the writing center. She was on her cellphone talking to her mom when Rob told her to put her phone away.

"Leave me the (expletive) alone," she said.

He told her to step outside with him.

"Hey, what was that for?" he asked. "Why would you say that to me?"

She cried, and they walked down to the principal's office. Brittany felt terrible. She responded in anger because she was so angry about what was happening in her life that she had little control over.

Rob knew that anger. When he returned to ninth grade after his mother died, he slammed a kid into a wall after the classmate kicked his foot. There's anger that comes with such traumatic loss. But he didn't really want to be that guy.

Rob told the principal to take it easy on Brittany.

When he got back to the classroom, he told his class about the hardest conversation he ever had with his mother. He had been upstairs when she called him down and motioned for him to sit on the couch next to her.

She broke the news that they had run out of options to treat the cancer.

"It's spread everywhere, and I'm dying," she told him. He fell to the ground, sobbing.

"Then I don't want to live either," he cried. He remembers her exhaling a small laugh and her bony hand patting the sofa next to her.

"I want you to remember something," she said. "Even though you are going to lose me, you don't ever get to use that as a crutch."

He didn't understand what she meant. She explained that a crutch was an excuse to stop trying, to stop living. It can be easier to use a tragedy as an excuse to fail.

"You won't do that," she said.

Some students in Rob's class, used to his wisecracks and jokes, fought back their tears. Many let them fall.

Two years later, Brittany recalls the message she took from his advice: "You can't go through life blaming other people," she said. "You can't be the victim your whole life."

When a young child's parent dies, you can lose your childhood or struggle to find your way out of it, survivors say.

"It's just about the worst possible thing that could happen," said Dave Durham, Rob's younger brother.

There are 1.9 million American children who receive Social Security benefits as survivors of a parent's death.

JenAnn died on May 15, 1993, six days after Mother's Day. She was 46.

Her daughter Susan, who as a sophomore in college when her mom died, took over a lot of the cooking and cleaning and spent more nights baby-sitting her younger brothers than going out with friends.

"We were buried in grief," she said.

Their father, Pat, took his youngest son, Dave, for grief counseling.

"If anything, they had to mature faster," Pat said. Dave, 34, said he and Rob didn't talk much about what they were going through at the time.

He didn't get the same talk from his mom that his older brother did.

"It was sugarcoated for me," he said. "I wasn't ever told it was 'the end.'" Her death caught him off guard.

"I think we were dealing with it individually," he said. For years, he tried not to think about her death so close to Mother's Day.

"That used to bother me a lot," he said.

An acquaintance encouraged Rob to submit a piece for an annual show held the day before Mother's Day. The "Listen to Your Mother" productions, held in cities across the country, invite writers to submit essays about their moms. The finalists audition to be picked to read their pieces in front of a live audience.

"You could write something really funny," his friend said.

"I could write something," he responded. "But it's not going to be funny."

He decided to write his story about the advice his mother gave him on how to deal with her death. He's come back to it at different points in his life.

He earned a 4.0 GPA and graduated valedictorian of his high school. He worked while he was in college to be able to go to Europe. He moved to St. Louis despite being established on a comedy club circuit in Ohio to improve his craft. He met his future wife, Beth, before a show. He has self-published three books. He started teaching to pay the bills, but it's become a bigger part of his life than his comedy.

He gets plenty of material from his students, too.

"The seniors asked me if I wanted to be a part of Barefoot Friday" at school, he said. "I told them, 'No, because I don't want to be a part of Ringworm Monday.' That made it into the set."

His piece was chosen to be among those performed.

His sister, Susan, said she imagines her mother would be so proud of everything her brother has done.

"That's all she really wanted was for us to be happy," she said.

Rob received a note from Brittany at the end of her freshman year.

"Thank you for taking the time to talk and listen," she wrote. "I'm sorry I never got the chance to try so hard in your class. Wish I would have done better ... You are the only teacher who has shown me respect and caring. I'm sorry for yelling at you that one time."


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