"She has touched the heart of every child who has come through this school, and it’s refreshing to see."
Mary Alice Bertrand
Based on her extracurricular activities alone, Gabby Chase could make a compelling case that she’s the most interesting educator in the world.
A Barbados native and a longtime physical education teacher, Ms. Chase will soon begin her 30th year in New Jersey’s East Windsor Regional School District. And when she’s not busy enlightening the more than 700 students at Perry L. Drew Elementary on the finer points of every game from floor hockey to capture the flag, the avid traveler and scuba aficionado can be found golfing, woodworking or shark diving — a death-defying experience that was such a thrill she had to do it twice.
Around town, however, Ms. Chase is best known as the queen of the cups — and with good reason. Over the past two decades she’s mentored scores of students through her sport stacking club, first at Walter C. Black Elementary, and for the past 10 years at Perry L. Drew. The club was an idea borne out of curiosity after Ms. Chase stumbled upon stacking at a convention in Philadelphia in the late ‘90s, and as the sport has grown to include players around the globe, her club has taken on a life of its own, to the point where stacking is now part of her P.E. curriculum on campus.
“Not all kids can be great athletes and not all kids are great at academics, but this is something where anyone can do it,” Ms. Chase says of sport stacking, which has originated in the early 1980s. “So I said, ‘You know what? I want to offer something for everyone.’”
For the uninitiated, the concept of stacking is simple, even if the execution is far from it.
While beginners typically get their feet wet with a basic 3-3-3 formation, the standard “cycle,” as it’s known in the stacking world, involves the use of 12 identical cups. Stackers start by building and immediately deconstructing towers of three, six and three cups, respectively, then move on to a 6-6 formation, which features two six-cup towers, built side-by-side.
Once those have been taken down, stackers finish with a 1-10-1 move, in which participants erect and then swiftly dismantle a 10-cup tower, leaving them with the original stacks of three, six and three cups they had at the beginning. The goal is to complete the rotation as quickly as possible, and some, like world record holder William Orrell, can go through the entire sequence in less than five seconds.
“It’s constant movement,” Ms. Chase says. “It’s almost like sleight of hand. You have to hold them like feathers to get them moving that fast.”
For the majority of Ms. Chase’s students, the objective is gradual improvement more so than maintaining a lightning-fast pace, and when she sees the camaraderie and teamwork displayed by the third, fourth and fifth graders in her club — which meets during lunchtime three days a week, with one grade meeting per day — Ms. Chase knows she’s hitting that goal.
“I love to see that progression, when they start out and they can’t do it at all and they’re just completely confused, and then they get to the point where they’re fast or they can demonstrate it to someone else,” says Ms. Chase, who describes herself as just an average stacker. “That’s what I like — when I teach them and can then say, ‘Can you guys teach the new people?’ That’s the most gratifying part for me.”
"Not all kids can be great athletes and not all kids are great at academics, but this is something where anyone can do it. So I said, 'You know what? I want to offer something for everyone.'"
“I would see Katie doing it at home and I would say, ‘I want to do that when I get older,’ and when I finally did, I was so happy, because my sisters always helped me with it,” says Mallory, now a sixth grader. “Now they always use the excuse, ‘Oh, well I haven’t done it in a while,’ when I win.”
Even more important than the competition, however, is the bond Mallory formed with Ms. Chase — who affectionately calls her ‘Mals’ — during her time at Perry L. Drew.
“If I’m in school and it’s a really hard day or something’s really bothering me, when I have her class I can just let loose and let it all go,” Mallory says. “And then when I go back to class it’s all over with, it’s like a new day.”
“She’s always really encouraging,” Mallory says of Ms. Chase, who can frequently be found gallivanting about the hallway with her handmade honeysuckle walking stick and red pocket fan, cracking jokes, striking up conversation and doling out hugs to students passing by. “She wants you to feel like you can do anything and wants you to feel good about yourself. So it’s nice to have a teacher that cares about you that much.”
Mallory’s mother, Mary Alice, says Ms. Chase showed that same compassion with each of her girls.
“I give these teachers a lot of credit because it’s very hard with all the different testing and all the things they have to deal with that’s not the teaching and actually working with the children,” says Mary Alice, who works part time at another school in the district. “But you can tell she has not let that disturb her focus.
“It’s the kids,” Mary Alice says. “She does it for the kids, and if any of these other pressures are building, she doesn’t let it show at all. She still comes in enthusiastic every day. She has touched the heart of every child who has come through this school, and it’s refreshing to see.”
Mary Alice also says that the practical life lessons her daughters picked up from stacking with Chase served them far beyond their elementary school experience.
“It gives them the courage to try something new later, and that’s what I think is so great,” she says, noting that she and each of her daughters are involved in Irish dance, in addition to other more mainstream sports. “It’s a different group, it’s a different network.
“Kids know the basics: soccer, baseball, track, those sports,” Mary Alice continues. “And it’s like I say to my oldest daughter now that she’s starting to think about careers — you look at doctor, lawyer, things like that, but there’s so much more out there. I just think it’s neat when they have the opportunity to do something different and walk away open to the idea that there’s a lot more out there that they can do.”
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"I just think it’s neat when they have the opportunity to do something different and walk away open to the idea that there’s a lot more out there that they can do."
Mary Alice Bertrand
The daughter of an American mother and Bajan father, Ms. Chase lived in Barbados until she was a teenager, then finished high school in New Hampshire before going to college near Philadelphia. While in Barbados, Ms. Chase grew particularly close to Mrs. Crowcrof, a British P.E. teacher who mentored her during her formative years.
“She was one of the few teachers who could talk to me and ask me, ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing that? You know you shouldn’t be doing that,’” said Ms. Chase, a free spirit who admits she had a wild streak as a child. “She basically took me under her wing for three years.
“Every time there was a problem, I knew I could go to her to talk about it and I knew I wouldn’t be judged,” Ms. Chase continues. “She kept me level-headed.”
It was Crowcrof’s impact that ultimately inspired Ms. Chase, a former swimmer, softball player and field athlete, to get into education after receiving a degree in recreation from West Chester State. And at this point, it seems likely that many of her own former students will someday look back on her as their inspiration, as well.
“I know a lot of my old teachers, if they knew I was a teacher now, they’d be rolling in their graves — ’Oh, no, not her,’” Ms. Chase said with a hearty laugh. “But I like to emulate what Mrs. Crowcrof taught me when I was little, and I try to give that to the children now.
“They melt your heart after a while.” Ms. Chase adds of her students, her voice softening. “I have a good rapport with them and they know they can always come to me.”
For thirty years, that attitude has never changed, and Ms. Chase continues to lead and inspire one cup at a time.
Photography by Thomas Grimes
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