Catherine Webber & Anne Rankin

Year of Graduation: 
2021 & 1992

"The fact that I grew up here is what makes my experience unique from the ‘normal’ Exeter experience. I’ve learned to cherish this."

Catherine Webber ’21 sits at a lab bench on the top floor of Phelps Science Center flanked by fixtures of her Exeter experience: her mom and fruit flies.

Her mom, Science Instructor Anne Rankin ’92, has brought Webber to this building since before she could walk. The flies — thousands of them flitting about in vials, snacking on a sugary goo — have been staples in Rankin’s genetics course for nearly as long. Drosophila melanogaster, it turns out, has a genetic makeup remarkably similar to that of humans.

Rankin returned to Exeter to teach in 1999. She still has a photo on her phone of an illustration of a fruit fly an elementary-school-aged Catherine drew on her whiteboard, a big clock embedded in its cartoon abdomen. “Time Taker,” the fly was named, a not-so-subtle commentary on how much time Mom spent in the lab.

It rubbed off on her daughter — Mom’s passion for science and research; not necessarily the bugs. Webber intends to study molecular and organismal biology and ecology at Colorado College on a pre-med track.

It is not uncommon for children of faculty to attend the Academy. It also is not uncommon for daughters of alumnae from the past 50 years of coeducation to follow in their mothers’ paths to Exeter. What is rare is to be both a child of an instructor and a child of an alumna, a distinction that informed Webber’s Exeter experience even before she applied.

“The conversations surrounding Exeter in my family have always been overwhelmingly positive,” Webber says. “My grandfather [Kenneth “Ned” Rankin ’59], one of Hammy Bissell’s boys, credits Exeter with changing the path of his life. My mother made the decision to come back as a teacher because she loved her time here as a student so much. …  Exeter taught everyone in my family lessons and gave them memories that they’ve held on to for their whole lives.”

I think having my mom as a teacher was key in figuring out how to balance Exeter as my home and as my school. I learned that the two aren’t mutually exclusive and it actually isn’t important to find a distinction."

Rankin tried to leave her status as Exeter alumna and instructor out of her daughter’s equation and predetermine nothing.

“I really did think about whether it was the right place for her,” says the teacher. “And I tried really hard not to think too much about my own experience because I think it’s changed. The school has changed a lot. I didn’t want to layer my experience or push my experience onto her.”

Rankin arrived at Exeter in the fall of 1988, the second of four siblings to follow their father to the Academy. Coeducation was nearing the end of its second decade by then, and Rankin said she didn’t much consider gender during the application process nor during her time while a student here.

“Maybe it’s because my dad felt like the school was a better place with girls. He was not an alum who was grumpy about girls being here. All of the narrative [in my home] about the school was like, ‘It’s better for having girls.’ So, when I walked in here, it was like, ‘It’s better because I’m here.’”

Exeter’s evolution since her days as a student, Rankin says, revolves around the community’s attention to developing the “whole person” rather than simply “what can we put in your brain?” She says she is a strong proponent of this holistic approach: “Learning is an emotional activity. And if you’re not settled and calm and feeling O.K., you actually can’t learn, period.”

Different, too, are the mother’s and daughter’s experiences as Exeter students. Rankin traveled across the country as a four-year boarder. Webber grew up on and around campus and now lives with her parents and younger sister a few miles away. Her best friends at the Academy include fellow faculty children and playmates she’s had since grade school.

“I had totally different stressors,” Rankin says. “I was homesick and I wasn’t trying to navigate my sibling relationship and I wasn’t trying to keep up with my chore chart at home —  all those things that you’re trying to do as a day student. I think she’s having a really different experience than I did.”

Webber acknowledges the differences, too — for better and for worse. She admits to struggling at times to square her experience with those of her peers, but she says she started to embrace her individual journey during her senior year with the help of her genetics teacher: Mom. Because Rankin is the only instructor teaching the subject, Webber signed up and just completed two terms of genetics with her mother as her teacher — and those dreaded time-taking fruit flies as her research fodder.

“I think having my mom as a teacher was key in figuring out how to balance Exeter as my home and as my school,” Webber says. “I learned that the two aren’t mutually exclusive and it actually isn’t important to find a distinction. The fact that I grew up here is what makes my experience unique from the ‘normal’ Exeter experience. I’ve learned to cherish this.”

Sitting side by side in a science lab, the pair exhibit far more similarities than differences. Rankin admires her daughter’s quiet self-confidence and willingness to take risks.

“She has more of a sense of, ‘I can do whatever I want. I’m equipped to do that.’ And I guess I don’t know exactly where that came from because that certainly didn’t come from me,” Rankin says. “I mean, I’m an overthinker.”

“That is an understatement,” her daughter quickly agrees.

“I ponder everything,” Rankin adds, “like, ‘What could go wrong here?’”

“It took seven years to remodel our kitchen,” Webber says with a smile.

Webber acknowledges that it’s a “very teenage reaction” to try to distance herself from her parents and stake her independence, “but I think having her as a teacher, we’ve definitely learned that we think the same way.” As for that quiet confidence her mother envies, Webber believes she came by that at PEA.

“My mom credits my risk-taking to a confident streak or fearlessness,” she says. “I think it’s much more about growing up here and watching the people I was surrounded by taking risks.”

Webber spent spring term of her lower year studying at The Island School in the Bahamas. Over a hundred days in 2019, she studied fisheries, sustainability and food-production systems as well as humanities coursework steeped in local culture. It was a transformational experience for her — in part because it was somewhere other than the campus that she’s occupied for most of 18 years. She’s ready to leave the nest.

“I am excited for the ways in which my college experience will be different from Exeter, moving across the country, a new learning methodology, teachers who didn’t know me as a little kid,” Webber says.

“I am also expecting to deeply miss Exeter. I’m going to miss being surrounded by people as passionate as Exeter students and I’m going to miss Harkness. … Exeter has certainly prepared me for the next step.”

— Patrick Garrity

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the spring 2021 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.