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Working through survival

High school chemistry teacher leaves the classroom on her terms
by: Vern Uyetake, Jennifer Harvester, a longtime chemistry teacher at Lake Oswego High School, survived breast cancer and returned to teach one more year before retiring this June. She plans to take up sculpting to exercise the right side of her brain, for once.

A few weeks after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Jennifer Harvester's usual lust for life had disappeared.

She sat at her home in Camas, Wash., unable to do much but wallow in self-pity. It was an unusual moment for a woman known for her pleasant outlook on the world.

Then came an inspiring phone call from one of her former students at Lake Oswego High School.

'Miss Harvester,' the young man urged, 'if you give up on life, on the positiveness of it all, then everything you've ever taught us is not true. Please think about that.'

Harvester did - and still does now - as she reflects on the month it took her to accept and face her illness with courage.

'I decided right then that I can walk my talk,' she said.

So, after a double-mastectomy and nearly six months of chemotherapy and then radiation, she returned last spring to her job as a chemistry teacher at LOHS.

Harvester, 58, wanted to put in another full year of teaching before retiring in June. More than anything, she wanted a happy ending to her 37-year career.

'I don't like to not finish things,' she explained. 'I don't want to be sick and not come back. I wasn't about to let a little thing like cancer throw me a curve ball and make me a victim.'

Steve Huss, LOHS science department chair, wasn't surprised with her decision.

'I kind of always assumed she'd come back,' Huss said. 'It never crossed my mind she wouldn't.'

'Humble beginnings'

Harvester grew up in Gackle, N.D., a tiny town of 600 sandwiched between Bismarck and Fargo.

'When I was growing up, we still had outdoor toilets,' she noted.

Her family didn't have much money, but Harvester knew she wanted to go to college. Most of all, she knew she wanted to be a chemistry teacher.

That was in the eighth grade. Her teachers, meanwhile, thought she'd be better off taking home economics with the other girls.

'I didn't know how it was going to happen,' she said of her dream. 'I just knew it would happen.'

She was fascinated with atoms and how they played into the structure of life. Chemistry, it appeared, could give her the answers to all of her big questions.

'It meant I could understand the world spiritually, as well,' she said.

But after a bad reaction to a polio vaccine, Harvester was diagnosed with scoliosis and missed many days of school. Then, during her junior year, her dad passed away.

'It was a hard life,' she said. 'Teachers knew we didn't have money … or a dad.'

One of Harvester's chemistry teachers believed she was too bright not to pursue a degree and contacted the local Lion's Club for help.

A redheaded, bespeckled man named Kermit came to her rescue by guiding her toward a full scholarship at North Dakota State University.

Harvester took a hodge-podge of science courses and graduated with a bachelor's degree in composite science - the first of its kind at NDSU.

She spent several years teaching science at a school in East Detroit, Mich., then moved west in 1983 and took a job at Cascade Junior High School in Evergreen.

Five years later, she began working toward a master's degree in education at Portland State University, where she became acquainted with Superintendent Bill Korach and former Lakeridge High School biology teacher Rob Severson.

'They asked me to interview, and the rest is history,' she said.

'A very, very hard grader'

In the past, Harvester has taught virtually all of the science courses offered at the school - from Earth science to biology to physics. Due to budget cuts and other factors, she now teaches advanced chemistry three days a week.

For the most part, the chemistry curriculum hasn't changed a whole lot in 18 years. The lessons stay the same, and so too have the Bunsen burners, test tubes and other equipment used in experiments.

Teenagers haven't changed that much, either.

When she sees a student acting out of line, she'll call them out - in a straightforward kind of way. Her no-nonsense reputation proceeds her, she added with a chuckle. Tardiness, she said, is her only ongoing problem.

'I'm usually tongue-in-cheek to reprimand,' she said. 'You cannot demand respect. You have to earn it.'

Sophomore chemistry student Thomas Belesiu explains: 'She knows literally everything. If you're screwing off, she knows what you're doing … and every other trick in the book.'

He added that Harvester's fair and fun, a teacher that knows her stuff but never acts superior to her students.

'She has an amazing way with students and her students really appreciate her for who she is,' Huss said. 'She's outgoing and she's tough in terms of academic demands. She makes her class entertaining and fun.'

Harvester doesn't grade on a curve because - as she tells her students - one day, one of them will be her doctor and she doesn't want to be reminded that she gave them the easy way out.

To balance out her demands, she offers extra credit, and students are allowed to challenge their grade by proving they deserve better.

'I'm a very, very hard grader,' she said. 'I look between the lines to see what they are really trying to say and they need to nail it to get full credit.'

A lot of her students have gone on to successful careers, many in science-related fields - including medicine.

'I hope I've … challenged them enough to be competitive when they go out into the world,' she said.

After June, Harvester plans to travel and exercise the right side of her brain through sculpting. She doesn't know how she'll become a sculptor, but she knows it will happen.

Meanwhile, the district plans to bring her job back full-time.

'You can't even imagine what it's going to take to fill her position,' Huss said. 'You don't replace someone like her, you basically just try to fill the void.'

According to Principal Bruce Plato, students appreciate Harvester's high standards, passion for chemistry and her ability to weave life lessons into her classes.

'Jennifer is one of those teachers who truly leaves a lasting impact,' Plato said.

In the final return to her classroom, Harvester was able to recuperate in a positive way - and gain closure by sharing her experience with cancer.

It's a topic she's learned to joke about openly - and often - using her signature self-depreciating humor.

'Hopefully kids leave here with an understanding of how bright they are and that, with confidence, they can confront difficult situations and succeed,' Harvester said.

'It's the same in chemistry. They can have problems figuring something out, but all they can do is continue to try, try, try.'