New roots

Favorite floriculture teacher re-arranges life to include graduate school

BACK TO SCHOOL Carrie Whitcher is leaving her alma mater Chico High School after 10 years of teaching horticulture, botany and floral design. She likes to joke that after she gets her Ph.D. she’ll be the “Whitch doctor.”

BACK TO SCHOOL Carrie Whitcher is leaving her alma mater Chico High School after 10 years of teaching horticulture, botany and floral design. She likes to joke that after she gets her Ph.D. she’ll be the “Whitch doctor.”

Photo by Tom Angel

Next up: Taking over Carrie Whitcher’s agriculture classes at Chico High School will be Quinn Mendez, a talented teacher who was supervised by Whitcher herself during her student teaching.

With glass-doored refrigerators and rolls of ribbon lining the walls, the room looks suspiciously similar to a professional flower shop, but with a lot more desks and dozens of hardbound textbooks with titles like The Art of Floral Design and Introductory Horticulture.

It’s finals week at Chico High School, and the floriculture students are busy snipping and stringing carnations—alternating red and gold, in the school colors—into $20 Hawaiian leis that will be worn by the week’s graduates.

At the center of it all is teacher Carrie Whitcher, presiding over the class in an apron over her jean shorts and Hawaiian shirt. As the students busy themselves with piles of the flowers, Whitcher is all over the room, showing how to gently squish the carnations together, cracking jokes and sharing the lore—more intended to motivate than educate—that it’s good luck to poke the needle through in such a way that the forked ovary of the flower is extracted.

This fall, after 10 years at Chico High, Whitcher be going from teacher to student, studying for her doctorate at Texas A & M. To say she’ll be missed would be the understatement of the year.

Senior Heather Wren has taken classes from Whitcher for four years and credits her with everything from pushing her to apply for scholarships to helping her through personal problems to inspiring her to eventually open her own plant nursery.

“She’s just done so much for me personally,” Wren said. “She’s always the first one to offer to help you. … She puts in so much extra time for us. If teachers really got paid by the hour, she’d be a millionaire.”

Whitcher teaches botany, two floral-design classes and two levels of ornamental horticulture and supervises student projects. She has helped build the horticulture program—one of fewer than a dozen of its kind in the state—into a prestigious program that, through Future Farmers of America competitions, has snagged several state awards. Chico High’s Ag Department now boasts three greenhouses, regular plant sales and a reputation for excellence.

Whitcher, having already realized her dream of being a high school ag teacher, caught sight of a second goal that will require an advanced degree. Whitcher already holds a master’s degree in biology from Chico State University but wants to get her doctorate in horticulture, studying plant nutrition. Beyond that, her “ultimate dream” is to re-open the shuttered horticulture program at Chico State.

“I really thought that I would stop with my master’s,” Whitcher said. But with the encouragement of her professors, she figured, “Why stop now?”

“There’s a big void in the horticulture sciences,” she explained. There aren’t nearly enough people teaching the subject at the college level. Even those who study the field often end up staying with the growing aspect rather than the research that intrigues Whitcher. “I really want to get into ag teacher education and undergraduate horticulture,” she said.

Chico High is even more of a home to her since she is a third-generation graduate of the school. Raised on a cattle ranch north of Chico, Whitcher graduated with the class of 1986, with honors including serving as FFA president.

Today, Whitcher is part teacher, part counselor, part friend. Students say she gets them excited about learning—like a couple of weeks ago, when she took her class to visit Martie the cloned calf at Chico State’s University Farm.

And Whitcher, who revels in being “cheap,” knows all the tricks of making sure the students get the most out of their $100 course materials fee, which, incidentally, can be worked off in the greenhouse if finances are an issue. She drove down to Sacramento to pick up the graduation carnations at wholesale and plopped them into huge dill pickle buckets for storage. ("You need to frequent Burger Hut,” she advised.)

Whitcher is also famous around campus for her Lego collection, which she occasionally incorporates into her genetics unit. The day we visited, someone dropped by a souvenir pack from Legoland. “I’ve been there three times,” she said, gleefully unwrapping a shirt, Frisbee and sunglasses. She’s been collecting for six or seven years and has about 1,100 sets, but said, “I can’t say I have everything. I’m certainly not space-complete.”

Many of her students share Whitcher’s sense of humor—and responsibility.

When the students toilet-papered her house as a prank, Whitcher said, “they left me a message on my answering machine saying when they would come clean it up.”

“Ms. Whitcher’s great for a class—it’s not extremely hard and it’s not easy,” said Steven Heald, a senior who is Whitcher’s first-period teaching assistant and also takes two of her classes. “If you’re doing something wrong, she’ll let you know, and if you’re doing something right, she’ll let you know.”

He never would have considered agriculture as a career but needed life science credits and landed in Whitcher’s class. Now, he plans to major in ornamental horticulture at Butte College.

Jill Campbell bounced from Pleasant Valley High School to home school to Chico High, and “there was nowhere I felt that I belonged. Then I came to Ms. Whitcher.”

“Ms. Whitcher is always there for you. She wants you to be the best you can be,” she said. “She’s inspired me to be an ag teacher.”

“The whole Ag Department is really close-knit,” Campbell added, and teachers from Whitcher to Claude Monlux to David Wemp have complementary personalities that add up to a mini-family.

When Campbell, who’s still a junior, learned Whitcher would be leaving, she said, “I cried. I’ve had her as a teacher now for two years, and I’ve had her for floriculture team. I was bawling—there was just tears running down my face.”

The students remember sleeping in a van en route to competition in full FFA dress; chowing down on ice cream after a successful meet; and fund-raiser after fund-raiser. Nights and weekends don’t mean time off for Whitcher. “She calls us her kiddies,” reveals Heald.

“Without her, I wouldn’t be in the FFA. I’d probably be someone completely different. She goes above and beyond her average duties,” said student Winston Colgan.

“She stayed here till 2 in the morning to make sure we had our books ready for state FFA,” Colgan said. It was the same for the Silver Dollar Fair—up late and early the next weekend morning to drive the entries in.

“She’s very hard-headed and she pushes you,” said Zellick, who now wants to be an ag teacher. Knowing she’d be gone by the time Zellick was ready for Chico State, Whitcher took her over to the campus and introduced her to the professors there.

At the same time, Wren observed, “She’s always doing stuff to try to make herself better.” Added Zellick: “The other two teachers out here had their master’s, so she decided she had to be just as smart as them.”

Campbell sums it up: “Ms. Whitcher is just Ms. Whitcher. There’s no other way to explain her. She’s herself, and that’s what makes her so great. She’s not afraid to say anything.”

Whitcher sees her role more simply.

“A lot of kids don’t know what they want to do in high school,” she said. “I like to push them to the point of getting out of their comfort zone, and as a result kids walk away with a lot more self-confidence.”

In the horticulture, and especially the floriculture, classes, Whitcher said, “you get the nontypical, nontraditional kids in agriculture [courses], and they realize it’s not cows and plows. Everybody takes ag.”

“This is my dream team floriculture team,” she beamed, referring to the state awards and 22 applicants for regional proficiency. “If I had to go out at a year, this would be it.”

Before Whitcher leaves town, in mid-August, she’ll help the FFA team with the state fair in Sacramento.

Then, she’ll pack up her Legos and hit the road. “They’re all going with me,” she said. “All 2,000-plus pounds. I literally have a ton of Legos.”

“It’s really hard, though,” she said. “Some days I go home with tears in my eyes because I don’t want to leave.

“I’m gonna miss the kids. The facilities are great, the staff is great, but I’m going to miss these kids,” she said.

In the next room, the students reminiscing loudly about trips to state finals and Legoland, get quiet for a minute, looking into the next room where Whitcher is helping a student arrange a group of roses.

“I’m so proud of her,” Zellick says softly.

“It’s not going to be the same."