Occasionally, when Evergreen Middle School science teacher Jeff McCarthy says goodbye to a class of students, he offers an offhand salute.
He likens it to a gesture that late-night television comedian Johnny Carson often made to his right-hand man, Ed McMahon. It’s a sign of respect, a sign of farewell.
McCarthy may make that offhand salute on May 30, the last day of this school year, when he says goodbye to his last class of eighth-graders. McCarthy, 63, is retiring after 35 years of teaching, 21 of them at EMS.
His leaving will happen without a lot of fanfare. He plans dinner with his family to toast the new stage of his life but no big party.
“Quirky” aptly describes McCarthy’s teaching style and his approach to life. He enjoys what he calls classroom shenanigans to help keep his students engaged in learning about science.
During a typical class lecture, he throws in a bit of Spanish — just to make things interesting. Or he might try an Arnold Schwarzenegger impression to mix things up.
For many years, he had a Nerf ball named Chuck that he threw around his classroom. The student who caught Chuck answered a question.
He also kept a menagerie of reptiles in his room. McCarthy admits he is obsessed with snakes, and several years ago he caught two bull snakes on a trip to Montana and brought them to school. He put one snake around his neck and crawled to the front of the room, surprising the students. Once he put the snake on a table, they became curious and wanted to touch it.
“You have to put a fire underneath them every day,” he said. “I think, all in all, getting them going, interested and encouraging them is important.”
Fellow EMS science teacher Kim McCormack said she will miss McCarthy’s stories “about life, fishing, those kinds of things. He always entertained the kids.”
Science teacher Lizz Lincoln called him passionate about kids doing messy hands-on science.
Principal Kristopher Schuh said: “(McCarthy’s) passion for creativity, thinking outside the box and science will be missed. He has been a strong advocate for our middle school for years and years.”
When he’s not in the classroom, McCarthy is an avid outdoorsman who loves to camp and fly-fish. He plays guitar and violin, and collects model trains. In fact, according to one of his colleagues, he had a train set up in a school storeroom at one time.
His students and colleagues are well acquainted with the blue 2004 Cobra he drives in good weather and the stop he makes each morning for coffee at the Tin Star Café in downtown Evergreen.
“I get my cup of java, solve the problems of the world, then go off to school,” McCarthy quipped.
For McCarthy, technology has been the biggest change in his years of teaching. He doesn’t “do” Facebook or Twitter, and he can remember a time when he taught students how to use slide rules.
“Kids can go around the world on their iPads in a matter of seconds,” he said. “Years ago, it had to be done in the library by researching in books.”
Even though technology permeates classrooms and students’ social interactions, kids are still kids, he said.
McCarthy and his wife, Georgine, moved to Evergreen from Connecticut in 1988 after vacationing in here in 1983. Since joining the EMS staff, he’s worked for five principals.
Georgine still works part-time as an optician for Eye Consultants of Colorado in Conifer. They have no children but live with two golden retrievers whom they treat like kids: Sam and Annie.
He has a bachelor’s degree in secondary education science and biology, and a master’s degree in entomology.
McCarthy is grateful for the unwavering parent and community support over the years.
“I’m very proud of being a member of the Evergreen community, working at the public school and being part of the whole system in the mountains,” he said. “The best part of my career has been here.”
He says he will miss working with students in the classroom every day and the friendships with his colleagues.
“We care about each other, we laugh, we’re concerned about each other, and we hang out after school hours,” he said.
That’s why he’s planning to do some substitute teaching in area schools to keep his hand in teaching.
His favorite event at EMS is “continuation,” the ceremony that bids farewell to eighth-graders as they make their way to high school.
“Seeing students at continuation touches me,” he said. “As a teacher, you’re a part of that. You’ve given them skills to move on and be successful in the high school. It’s just a really neat thing to see them move on, to watch the maturation as they’re slowly becoming adults.”