Editor’s Note: This story is a Chronicle Classic, from 2018, written by Grace Ecklund Gustavson in 2018. Kathy is a now-retired teacher who touched the hearts and lefts marks on the lives of many students during her career.
Kathy Topping sits by the projector singing about the electromagnetic spectrum. She explains to her student’s people remember things in different ways; she’s found that catchy sayings and songs are best. She makes circles and labels on a paper she’s projecting for the whole class to see and looks up from the paper and chuckles as she tells of a biology class she took in college where she had to memorize the cranial nerves of a frog. She and the other students had used “an absolutely filthy, filthy saying,” to remember the names and locations of the nerves.
In college, Kathy didn’t think she’d become a teacher. When she applied to Amherst’s Ph.D. program, she envisioned herself in a brightly lit lab, carefully pipetting solutions into vials, dressed in a white lab coat with a little pocket protector– not scribbling on a whiteboard while explaining the fundamentals of chemistry to high school juniors.
Kathy at the beginning of her teaching career
Yet, she found lab work isolating. A poster advertising an alternative course to get a teacher’s certificate appealed to her, mostly because the first week was rock climbing in the White Mountains.
After the course was over, she chose to intern at U-32, with a science teacher named Jim Hawk. Though he was touted as a high-tech teacher, Kathy was unimpressed by his teaching style and considered giving up on teaching entirely.
Then Rachel McAnallen came along. McAnallen persuaded her to stay and became her math intern. Even though Kathy went to college for the sciences, to McAnallen, as long as Kathy could do math, she could teach math.
In those days, the school was still brand new, and most of the teachers were young, Kathy’s age or a bit older. “They all wanted to change the world [the way] all young people want to change the world,” Kathy says. “So they want wanted school to be different… They didn’t want it to be the experience they had. They wanted kids to make their own decisions.”
One of Kathy’s yearbook pictures from early in her teaching
These young teachers weren’t very strict about students cutting class. Except for McAnallen. She would hunt down suspected students and drag them back. The other teachers disapproved, but Kathy couldn’t agree more.
“You don’t take an eighth-grade boy and say, ‘it’s your choice if you go to math class or not,’ I mean, DUH,” Kathy says. “What do you think they’re going to decide? They’re not mature enough to make that choice.”
As Kathy takes attendance for her Chemistry class, she notices a missing student. According to his classmates, he’s probably skipping and hiding from the administration. Kathy, completely straight-faced, says she might just go find him and drag him back. Everybody laughs, but no one doubts she would actually do it.
Kathy credits McAnallen with teaching her how to teach, and how to relate to kids. “Every positive thing I know in this job, I learned from her,” she says. “Never met her… don’t know what I’d be doing now, but I wouldn’t be a teacher.” After interning with McAnallen for a year, she was hired as a math teacher and remained so for the next 30 years.
To this day, Kathy says she is greeted by students from the very beginning of her U-32 career. Recently, she ran into Frank Michaud, a high school basketball player almost 40 years ago.
“He was kind of a pain,” Kathy says. “When he was in school, he was 6”3’, thin, and athletic; when I met him the other day I saw this tall guy pushing 300, and bald. I didn’t know who he was. And then he told me [his name] and smiled. And I could see the Frank in there.”
Tom Robinson, class of 1979, recalls geometry class with the young Kathy. She would “bounce around the open classroom, to and from the chalkboard, with a big smile and pleated skirt,” as she explained things like how many degrees in a rectangle and the laws of parallelograms. On the first day of geometry class, he remembers how Kathy explained, “if you’re ever going to understand geometry and get anywhere in life, then you’ll have to accept some things as facts,” writing and underlining the words, “God-Given Facts,” on the chalkboard. Robinson recalls her saying if you follow the formulas, “… you can build things like the Golden Gate Bridge and you can put a man on the moon… why? Because they work.”
“She was a great teacher,” Robinson says. “She helped turn my life around and because of that, I was able to get myself into college and also have a career, in which I have used geometry my whole life.”
Kathy continues the lesson on the electromagnetic spectrum. She moves her arms to show the slow frequency and long wavelength of radio waves. Everyone is quiet as she talks. Eventually, she changes gears and sets the students to retake quizzes.
Kathy walks inside the circle of desks, answering questions, science-related or not.
“What’s it mean when people say to “take it with a grain of salt’?”
Kathy takes off her glasses and sets them of her hip.
“It means to not take it literally, to know that there’s more to the story.”
The bell rings. The students pack up their bags and say their goodbyes to Kathy as they leave, wishing her a nice weekend.
Kathy moves around the room, picking up unused quizzes and pushing chairs out of the way for the next class. She packs up her cart, and wheels it out.