Mixed Elements

Teaching chemistry and orchestra no stretch for Richardson


Photos / Laura Richardson, Sophia Bailly

Richardson performed at Carnegie Hall in March, 2016 after competing in American Proteges International Competition of Romantic Music. / Richardson works with sophomores Cole Murray and London Burke to test chemical reactions with sodium chloride.

Aytek Abdulla, Staff Writer

As Melanie Richardson takes a seat behind her desk at the front of the classroom, her eyes flick towards the chair that used to be hers. An image of her excited high school self appears, unbeknownst to the fact that in the future she would be switching roles with the teacher in front of her and instructing a chemistry class in that exact room. The illusion fades into present reality, revealing a new student, patiently waiting in their seat. Richardson clears her throat and begins her lesson.

The West Shore alumna, who graduated in 2015, now teaches chemistry and orchestra. She obtained her degrees in chemical engineering and music performance from the University of Florida in May of 2020, close to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Richardson wanted to become a chemical engineer, but could not find a job that summer. Her mother, Laura Richardson, the school secretary, suggested that she take on some substituting jobs in order to keep herself busy and tack on some work experience.

“I automatically knew that I wanted to substitute here because West Shore is the best and I knew everyone here,” she said. 

Richardson spent the bulk of last year in Amy Davis’ position as the chorus and orchestra teacher since Davis went on personal leave. It was not supposed to be a long-term commitment; however, Davis extended her leave into the spring semester. Administration then appointed Richardson as a chemistry and orchestra teacher. What was initially a short-term situation, became a full-time teaching job combining the two subjects she had pursued in college.

According to Richardson, teaching such dissimilar subjects simultaneously can prove to be hectic at times.

“Teaching two vastly different classes like chemistry and orchestra is definitely crazy,” she said. “I know what I was walking into when I agreed to do both, but in some ways, it still baffles me at times. My mindset is just so completely different during both classes and keeping track of them both at the same time can be a little challenging. But, I double majored in chemical engineering and music for five years. I was splitting myself like that and dedicating myself to both equally. So even though teaching both of these subjects at the same time is different than what everyone else is doing, I like it because in a way it’s returning to what I’m used to. I feel myself thrive in being able to do both. I am very much both left brain and right brain oriented so being able to challenge both sides honestly makes me really happy.”

Laura Richardson, the school secretary, is happy to work so closely with her daughter.

“My daughter has grown immensely,” She said. “Anybody starting out in a professional career has their growth spurts and issues, but she works through them. It is very rewarding to see. I am extremely proud of her. It is a real treat to work with my daughter.”

Richardson’s mother traced her daughter’s musical excellence to her performances at Carnegie Hall.

“Well, to be a fathead mom, she performed there [Carnegie Hall] in London four times,” she said. “Every time it was a complete thrill for both my husband and me. I think I cried every time.”

Junior Adalynn Jacobson is grateful to have Richardson running the orchestra program.

“It really helps to have someone so experienced teach orchestra,” she said. “For a lot of years, orchestra has not been up to par because we haven’t had a teacher who really knows what they’re doing and actually knows a little bit about the music and the instruments.”

Jacobson saw Richardson’s past as an advantage when it came to directing the school’s orchestra.

“She [Richardson] has said many times in class that she really wants a lot for West Shore orchestra,” she said. “She wants to help expand the music program to be more than what it has been in the past and to help us get to the point where we can be a better orchestra. I think it is really nice that she knows what it takes to be a West Shore student while also knowing what it takes to be a musician here as well.”

As a high school student, Richardson said she never envisioned teaching at her alma mater.

“In some ways, honestly, it’s like I never left,” Richardson said. “I am really happy that I get to see some of the teachers who were really influential to me and get advice from them on being a teacher instead.”

Kirk Murphy, who was Richardson’s social studies teacher in high school, recalled a memory involving the alumna and a certain souvenir in his classroom.

“At that point, [Richardson] hung out with a young lady named Ernie,” Murphy said. “Ernie and [Richardson] are the ones who brought me the disembodied head of Elmo that I used to have in my room. They had done an Elmo piñata in Spanish and when they were done, all that was left was the head. Now, unfortunately, the head is gone. I got to get another piñata because I miss that head. As silly as that sounds, that is one of the distinct memories I have of her, with that joyous, mischievous look on her face bringing me that.”

Murphy said teachers returning to their alma maters is not as uncommon as it may seem.

“It is kind of neat seeing [Richardson] as a teacher here now,” He said. “I definitely talk with her to see how she is doing and how things are going all the time. I know that teaching wasn’t where she originally wanted to go because she has an engineering degree. You fall into those types of things, you know. A lot of people who are teachers, if they stay in the same area where they graduated from, they end up in their schools in some way or form. I graduated from Cocoa High School and ended up there as a substitute but also worked as a first-year contract.”

Richardson felt that teaching in classrooms that she once resided in as a student was a bit unusual but otherwise wonderful. 

“It is a little surreal to be sitting behind a teacher’s desk instead of like the other students,” She said. “Especially since I teach in classrooms that were some of my favorite classes. I just loved coming to my first chemistry class. My teachers made it so fun, interactive, and enjoyable. I get a little bit of a thrill being able to call this classroom my room. It is also one of the cooler rooms here on campus. I was in the chorus for all six years. Music classes always seem to become a home for the people in them, so being able to teach in that room brought a sense of comfort. It was like coming home.”

A yellow ceiling tile that Richardson painted for the orchestra and chorus classroom in high school lies on a table in her chemistry classroom. They were taken down due to a fire hazard they may now pose. Derrick Hamilton, the custodian, returned the tile to Richardson recently, knowing how “sentimental” she is. It dons a quote from Winnie the Pooh, reading, “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think! But the most important thing is even if we are apart… I’ll always be with you!” It serves as a symbol of Richardson’s past intermingling with her present as well as a testament to her relationship with the school.