How a steer nudged Mrs. Davis into Teacher of Year category

September 08, 1994|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Sun Staff Writer

Mary Pitt Davis' students will probably never forget the story she tells every year about Gertrude, the steer "who could run like the wind."

The Glenelg High School biology teacher, nominated for the 1995 Maryland Teacher of the Year Award, uses the tale to teach about anaerobic respiration and rigor mortis, the progressive stiffening of the muscles that occurs several hours after death.

As she relates it, she and the youngest of her three sons were walking the pasture on her father's farm 18 years ago when the $40 animal started to follow.

"Most of the cows stayed away," Mrs. Davis recalled, "but Gertrude -- he, it -- kept coming. "He wouldn't leave us alone. I had to jump the fence."

"I told my father I was ready for filet mignon," she said. But the steer bolted when it spotted the armed men with shotguns whom her father had called, and kept running until it was shot, Mrs. Davis said.

That's where the biology lesson comes in. The animal's body stiffened up on the truck that came to haul it away. Rigor mortis had set in -- so much so that the family had to hang the carcass for a month before they could eat the beef.

And in the end, the steer bit back. "The first bite I took, it broke my tooth," Mrs. Davis said. "He was still in rigor mortis. He got his revenge."

That story illustrates the humorous, earthy instruction style that helped earn the 50-year-old Dayton woman a spot as one of seven teachers competing for the state teacher award. The award will be announced at an event to be broadcast tonight by Maryland Public Television.

For 25 years, Mrs. has taught life sciences, chemistry, earth science, biochemistry, biology and anatomy. She has also taught in Japan and in Turkey.

"There are a lot of good teachers, and I think I was fortunate in being nominated," said Mrs. Davis, who was nominated by fellow science teachers at Glenelg High.

John Dean, president of the school's PTA, said Mrs. Davis' nomination is an honor for the community.

Mrs. Davis treats students "with a great deal of respect and basically says, 'You can do this' and encourages the kids to do that," Mr. Dean said.

Mrs. Davis' first teaching job was in the Carlisle public schools in Cambridge, Mass. Teaching was "the furthest thing" from her thoughts, she said, until she began to rear her first son.

"I was trying to continue an interesting life and a career with my child. I thought if I taught, I could be home with him. . . . That was the driving force," she said.

She earned a bachelor of science in botany and biology from the University of Washington, Seattle, in 1966; a bachelor of arts in Spanish literature from the same school a year later; and a master's degree in adult and continuing education from the Johns Hopkins University in 1983.

Oakland Mills High School was her first county teaching position. She remained there from 1977 to 1985, when she left for a two-year stint as a science teacher in Turkey. She returned to teach at Clarksville Middle School.

Three years ago, she began teaching at Glenelg High.

A recipient of two research fellowships, Mrs. Davis, was a finalist in the state Biology Teacher of the Year competition in 1989. She has written two high school biology texts. She also belongs to national and state science teachers organizations.

Her teaching style is similar to that of her favorite professor at the University of Washington, she said. He asked questions instead of lecturing. "By the directions of your questions, you get your answers," Mrs. Davis said.

Her tale of Gertrude and other stories are valuable, she said. "I think people learn better from story-telling."

Elizabeth Pagel, a former Glenelg High student of hers, agrees with that assessment.

"She introduced me to unbelievable concepts and relationships of chemicals, which seemed like magic but were happening right in my own brain, my own cells," Ms. Pagel said in a letter of recommendation. "We never had a dull sixth period that year. Her experiences around the world were always a source of entertainment, in addition to practical application of the material we covered in class.

"This incredible lady introduced me to a field of study I had ruled out of my life."

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