I've just returned from a memorial service to celebrate the life of a teacher -- Michael Cook. He was my son's teacher at the Bank Street School for Children in New York City when my son was 11 and my daughter's teacher when she was 10. Michael died exactly one week ago today.
The contrast between today's celebration of this teacher and the typical portrayal of teachers in the media could not be more diametrically opposed. In much of the media, teachers are painted as symbols of a clogged bureaucracy or of a dysfunctional union system; media discussions are increasingly focused on when and how to fire teachers as test scores remain static and as state and local funds for schools dwindle. Respected? Hardly, it seems.
Michael Cook always thought of himself as an ordinary man, but his impact on those he taught was anything but ordinary -- it was extraordinary, as witnessed by the hundreds of postings on the blog about him launched by the school and by the overflow crowd that gathered today. One former student wrote in the blog that Michael had become part of his soul. Another wrote that he was the imaginary audience he always wrote for.
What did Michael do? Why was his impact so powerful? Here are the words of his former students as some answers to this question.
One student wrote:
When I think about you, I picture you smiling!
Because Michael made each of his students feel known and understood, each felt special to him. One wrote on the blog directly to Michael during his final days:
You've been one of the most important people in my life. Perhaps you haven't known that, but I want to be sure you know it now.
After reading blogs from other students who felt the same way, this former student later acknowledged that everyone was special to Michael, not just him:
I have a bit of a confession to make. I used to feel that nobody else really understood just how great you are. (Well, relatively few others.) Thankfully, it has come to my attention over time that this bizarre notion of mine was truly absurd. I've heard from so many of your students and have read the words of others. The simple and obvious truth is that EVERYONE "gets it."
Michael seemed to be the safe haven in the storm -- for one child, it was moving to a new city and a new school:
I remember your class as a fifth grader. I remember telling you that I was sad because we'd had to put our dog to sleep, and your response was something like -- you were glad that I'd told you. It made me feel safe and cared for.
For another, it was a fear of electricity:
I don't know if you'll remember, but you were the one who convinced me not to be afraid of electricity after we had an electrical fire in our house.
For my son, it was the murder of a cultural icon:
On the day John Lennon was killed, you began the school day with a discussion about violence. I remember finding that conversation extremely helpful and comforting.
But for most, it was the transition from childhood into the teen years:
I was in your class as I made the transition from childhood to adolescence, a precarious and fraught time for everyone I think, and you were like a rock -- such an important stabilizing force, a home base during a time of change. This manifested itself daily in classroom interactions, where your presence was stable and sunny, amusing and serious at the same time.
He helped children make this transition in ways that seemed to bring out the best in each child. He was seen as careful and thoughtful "in calming the more temperamental among us and rousing the more subdued."
He also handled his students' mistakes well:
I remember one day when I dropped and broke several thermometers and beakers for some experiment we were working on. I was so upset at myself for causing such a disaster, yet you never once lost your patience, raised your voice or showed any sign of being upset with me. I cannot tell you how much I appreciated your patience and easygoing demeanor over what I thought was a major catastrophe.
His excitement about the subject he was teaching -- and for teaching in general -- was contagious:
Math was my favorite subject in school. I also think it was my strongest subject. I have always attributed both of these facts to you. You brought the subject to life and engaged me and the students around me in a way that I never saw another math teacher do. Thank you for sharing your love of the subject and your passion for teaching.
And it wasn't just math -- it was other subjects as well:
In the pages of that black composition book, your comments and reactions -- generous of spirit, copious, and thoughtful -- encouraged and challenged me. In this way, you gave me my first audience. Your comments and reactions set the tone for the notions I hold to this day of a critical but enthusiastic reader. More importantly, you are in the DNA of the imaginary person I picture when I write. Even now.
Most of his former students wrote that they learned much more than content from him:
I'm sure that I learned from you some crucial math or science skills without which I would've failed my high school classes or the SAT, but I probably have forgotten them by now (sorry!) and if not, they certainly are not what I think of when I think of you. You were my teacher... but you were much more than that.
By much more than that, students wrote that Michael helped them learn to challenge themselves:
Your gentle, but commanding presence in the classroom gave me the confidence to push myself and succeed, after having struggled in school.
He pushed his students to ask questions:
You were the first person to ever explain to me that asking good questions is at least as important as having the answers. And I have never stopped asking questions. I am so grateful for you in my life.
He pushed his student to work hard:
It was decades ago now that you were my teacher, but I still feel your influence. You showed me how to work hard. You set a high bar for your students, but you made it fun and challenging to reach it.
At the memorial service, one former student summarized this influence by saying that Michael Cook taught him how to live his life.
As Michael said, he was not unique. There are many nascent Michael Cooks among us today. I only hope that we can support and sustain them, honor and respect them, and celebrate them. That truly would be a fitting memorial to Michael's love of teaching and learning. In his words: "I have the most important job in the world!"