“How ya doin’ kiddo?”
I’m thirty, and Coop is the only person I’ve ever let address me with a nickname. She first met me when I was 10 years old, and for four years she was my gifted and talented teacher. That means for four years she had me, and had to deal with the non-stop pestering of a pre-teen who was a bit too smart for his own good, and had no idea of boundaries. Dr. Cooper was more than just a teacher, she was a protector, a mentor, a guide, and in many ways, a mother to the lot of us. She gave a group of kids who never really found their place in school a place to belong, a place where we could be challenged, and we could explore nascent ideas whenever our imagination would come up with a notion. More often than not, these ideas were delusions of absolute grandeur, but nonetheless, Coop gave us a safe haven where we could be unburdened with fitting in, we could just be kids.
It’s been twenty years since she first had me as a student, no matter how old I get, I think she still sees me as that shy, chubby Asian kid who walked into her classroom all that time ago. I’ve met an incredible number of people in my life, and I’ve met a number of extraordinary people in my life, but I have never met someone who has ever matched her endless capacity to love. I can’t even count the number of students that Dr. Cooper must have had by now, and yet it seems like she can remember each one of them and give me an exhaustive lecture about why that kid is special. But beyond that, Coop is one of those uniquely empathic individuals that has a gift for using herself as a conduit to make you not feel so alone, to lend her quiet strength to yours when you need it, and to celebrate your triumphs, small or large.
I think of anyone in my life, Coop may be the only person that I have never told a lie to. She’s one of those teachers that absolutely shaped who I am at my core. I think teachers have that effect when you’re at an impressionable age and you are with them for 4 years. I’m thankful that of all the great teachers I’ve had in my life, her influence was the one who touched my life the most. Of all the possibly assholish tendencies that I’ve picked up throughout the years, I can honestly assure you that none of them have been because of Dr. Cooper. She’s probably the one responsible for my redeeming qualities.
As much as I love catching up with Coop, when I visit, she puts me to work. She lets the kids challenge me whichever way they want. They’re brats, who long ago outsmarted the middle school curriculum and honestly, they reminded me of me when I was that age. Clever, insolent, and tired of being underestimated by adults who assumed that because they’re young, they can’t grasp advanced concepts. The only thing that kept this bunch of precocious rabble together was their respect and love for Coop, a thing that spans every child she’s taught. As such, I had to beat them at chess, lecture them about subdural hematomas, teach them some basic constitutional law, and diagram the basic principles of buoyancy and ballast. This might seem like a lot, but this is the average day in Dr. Cooper’s classroom. Every single public school should have someone like her, and I count having her as an influence in my life amongst the greatest blessings that I’ve ever experienced. She’s the one that saw a kid who was bored in class and instead of telling me to pay attention, Coop told me to go do whatever I wanted to do, explore every avenue, but be the absolute best at it. Dr. Cooper taught me to love learning for the sake of learning, and that is greatest gift that a teacher can give a student.
About halfway through my visit, a tall tow-headed kid came in and opened a laptop in the back of the room. Coop asked me to talk to him. It was hard to approach him at first, but after Coop made the introduction, he opened up. He told me that he loved Transformers, and that was my in. As an enormous nerd, I was well-versed on the robots in disguise. We both shat on the Michael Bay movies and then he said that he loved the IDW version of the universe the best. After he opened up about that, he showed me what he was working with on his laptop, and to my absolute surprised, he had working 3D models of Transformers toys that could be manufactured on a 3D printer. Fully working, CAD designed models, and I was blown away. This is a kid in middle school that was putting out work that would put adults to shame. I spent a few minutes with him poring over the schematics, but then the bell rang and the period was over. I walked back to Dr. Cooper in absolute astonishment, and she told me that he’s one of the brightest kids that she ever met, but he had trouble connecting with people, so she put me up to the task, such is her perception and ability to coax the best out of her students. And then Coop asked one of those incisive questions that she is wont to do.
“So why are you visiting kiddo?”
A simple question for sure, but as someone who’s known me for most of life, she could see the unrest in my eyes, the unease behind my words. I could have told her that it was because I had a day off, I could have told her because I was in area and I wanted to stop by. I could have even told her that I missed her and wanted to drop-in and reconnect. All of these answers would have been correct, but they also all would have been lies. I’ve always told Dr. Cooper the truth, and I wasn’t going to change that starting now.
“Because the world is on fire Coop, and I don’t know what to do.”
She gave me that knowing smile, the smile that has given comfort and direction to countless kids and said back to me,
“You know, for someone who doesn’t believe in religion, you tend to come back here like you’re going to church.”
In that moment, I knew that Dr. Cooper may know me better than anyone else. I did treat her and her classroom with reverence, and near worship. In some ways when I go back to see her I seek guidance, and I guess sometimes even absolution. The thing that’s different though, I don’t deify Coop and her work because anyone told me so, but I do so because I believe in her, her devotion to her chosen path, and I’ve experienced how she can make that crucial difference in someone’s life. And so, she made me turkey chili, some salad, and we talked about my life.
She told me that I wasn’t wrong, that the world is going very wrong in a lot of ways. But then she talked about how she addresses it, one child at a time, one person at a time. Making sure that the next generation of minds is protected and nurtured in a way that allows them to flourish, but never impressing an agenda or bias on them. To try to help as many people as she can, even maybe more than she can handle. That’s her way of fighting back, and I feel like ‘fighting back’ is such a pejorative term for what she does. Fighting implies a certain amount of violence, but there is nothing violent in what she does. Dr. Cooper is perhaps the greatest example of compassionate love that I know of. Her capacity to love and care never ceases to amaze me, and tapping into that wellspring is what makes her who she is, and for the first time in a long year I felt hope. Or more importantly, capital H, Hope.
Before I left but after the teaching day was over, Coop didn’t tell me to keep my head up, or to think positive thoughts. None of those platitudes were necessary. She just reminded me of who I was, at the core of me, what she saw in me all those years ago. Dr. Cooper looked at me and told me that beyond all that learning, the two decades of growing up, she still saw the kid that was special not because he was smart, but because he had an innate understanding of how to connect to someone and make them feel like they were understood. I don’t know if that was ever who I was, or if somehow along the way I lost that sensibility. But seeing her again, listening to her speak to the heart of me, it felt like a jolt of electricity into my soul. Coop wanted me to remember who I was, and in her own way, she was welcoming me back to the fight. It’s been a long hard year for most of us, but seeing this woman endure and be unyielding in the face of unimaginable grief and loss, yet still being able to be hopeful and remaining incomparably giving of her love is nothing short of awe inspiring.
So, as Dr. Cooper dropped me off to catch the train back into the city, we said our goodbyes and I stood on the station platform, silently thanking every circumstance that lead me to be a student of this incredible woman. I am fortunate beyond words that this woman has been my teacher. This woman who uses love, compassionate love, as the lens through which she views the world, as the tool which she uses to affect change, and ultimately as the way she chooses to live her life. Coop would be too humble as to accept this praise, she would diminish her part in the success and growth of so many lives she’s touched. But, for those of us who have been under the wing of this tour de force of a woman, we know the quiet yet immeasurable ways that Dr. Cooper has changed us for the better.
So thank you Coop. Thank you and thank you and thank you. I’ll try my best to live by your lessons, strive to your example, and be as compassionate as you are. But, if and when I fail, I know you’ll be there to call me a brat, scold me in that way that is completely serious, and yet at the same time comforting. That, and you managed to keep a bunch middle schoolers with a little too much know-how from burning down the school or causing a major malfunction with power tools and electricity. There’s really nothing you can’t do.
You kept ten year old me sane in a world where he didn’t necessarily feel like he belonged. Bet you had no clue you’d be doing the same thing twenty years later.
Ain’t time a hell of a thing?
You’re the best Coop, forever and always.