Last Bell for Mr. Cutts

With the passing of their seventh-grade math teacher, former Lockhart students, many in their 40s and 50s, recall the sum of his heart.

Let’s say it’s been 20 or more years since you were in junior high. Ah, make that middle school, back when you made friends in person and not on Facebook. Take a second to think about those school days, what the campus looked like, who sat next to you in homeroom or in science class, a girl or boy you had a crush on.

Anything coming to mind?

You probably can remember the smell of the cafeteria or your first kiss behind the gym building easier than the name of a teacher from those days.

Which is what made Bill Cutts such a remarkable teacher. Many of his former students will never forget him, even though they have had dozens of teachers since being in his seventh-grade math class at Lockhart Middle School in north Orlando.

Math seems like such a cold subject, with numbers and absolutes, but Cutts didn’t teach it in a cool and calculating manner. Somewhere along the way while teaching preteens why prime numbers and fractions mattered to them, he also taught them that they mattered to him.

Bill Cutts died of cancer in January. He was 81. He had retired in 1992, after 30 years at Lockhart. Do the math. It doesn’t add up that so many of his former students, many in their 40s and 50s, would remember him; that so many of them would be among the 200 people assembled at Altamonte Community Church in Altamonte Springs to say goodbye and pay tribute to a teacher who taught a nerdy subject during the socially awkward year that is seventh grade.

At the gathering, just five days after Cutts’ death, they struggled to explain how the teacher managed to make such a lasting impression on so many students. They shared stories about him, crying and laughing at the same time.

They were Mr. Cutts’ kids, and still are. “I do not know how he did this,” his son, Kevin, said in his father’s eulogy. “This is magic. This is alchemy. This is spinning substance out of air.”

Students and family at the service all painted a portrait of a kind, compassionate and humorous, if not eccentric, teacher. They were drawn to Cutts’ classroom not just to learn, but to congregate before and after school, as a hang-out place. There Cutts could keep an eye on them, listen to them talk among their peers and offer advice without going parental on them. The safe haven of his classroom even led to the creation of an informal Lockhart chess club that one year managed to beat older students from nearby Edgewater High School.

What he said to his students wasn’t as memorable as what he meant to them—an authority figure who didn’t impose his authority on them. Cutts, they recalled, had a knack for getting unruly middle schoolers to straighten up without involving the principal’s office. He was known to playfully throw chalkboard erasers at students disrupting his class.

Today it’s hard to imagine a teacher not making the evening news for doing something like that.

To 56-year-old Larry Hopkins, Mr. Cutts was as much a peacemaker as an educator. It was 1969 when Hopkins was at Lockhart, and desegregation of Orange County schools had just started.

The first days of school were rocked by fights, and racial tensions were palpable, recalls Hopkins, who is black. Cutts, Hopkins says, would just walk up to a student looking to cause trouble, put his hand on a shoulder and simply say, “Settle down.” And he did.

Hopkins adds that even in seventh grade it was apparent to him that Cutts’ focus was on making sure his students learned mathematics.

“That man was some kind of teacher,” Hopkins recalls, flipping through the 1969 Lockhart Shield yearbook filled with pictures of friends from decades ago. “My God.”

It was Cutts’ relationships that inspired his daughter to follow her father into teaching. Wendy Bashinski is in her 32nd year of teaching social studies in grades six through eight at Lockhart Middle, where her mother, Cutts’ widow, Nancy, also taught. (Bashinski’s husband teaches there, too.)

Cutts’ legacy also lives on at the school in the form of the William R. Cutts Award, which is given each year to the most dedicated student at the school. Not outstanding, but dedicated —recognizing the type of student Cutts most appreciated.

The Cutts children say their father would have been genuinely surprised at how many people came to the service and how far some of them had traveled to pay their respects. One of Cutts’ students from 1969, 56-year-old Marlene Eversole-Cooper, flew in from her home in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Cooper says Cutts was the first to make her care about education. It wasn’t a virtue instilled by her parents, who never went to college. But thanks in part to Cutts, 10 years after she graduated high school, Cooper eventually went to college.

For her and former classmate Ann Lanier of Maitland, the service was a reunion of sorts—a joyous gathering as well as a tearful goodbye.

Recalling Cutts, Lanier remarks that when she was a student of his in 1967, the young teacher was just cutting his teeth as an educator. When pressed for a story, Lanier begins to relive a seemingly simple exchange with Cutts that happened one day when the teacher and student were leaving school. As they walked together, Cutts remarked that her last name at the time was the same as the make of
his car.

“‘You know,’” Lanier remembers him saying as they appr-oached his car, “‘I drive a Hillman.’” It was an old British-made red station wagon. Just making small talk, Lanier told Cutts she’d like to have the nameplate. Cutts didn’t even flinch as he broke the ornament off the station wagon and handed it to her.

“At that moment I thought, ‘How special am I?’” she says, choking up at the memory. “But I think that’s what he did for everybody. He tore off a piece of himself and handed it to them, and you knew instantly the value that you had to this human being.”

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