MISS COOK AND THE FROG
March 6, 2012
Sheryl J. Bize Boutte
As a high school student, I knew I wanted to go to college. I also knew that a good grade in science class was one of the major pathways to my goal. Unfortunately, I sucked at science.
So in my junior year of high school, it was with both curiosity and trepidation, (mostly trepidation), that I found myself in the Biology class taught by the universally feared Miss Odie B. Cook.
Miss Cook was the first African American, female scientist I had ever encountered. On top of that she was the chair of the high school science department. And although she was all of these things, as an often-distracted high school junior, I did not think of her in those terms until much later. At the time, she was just mean Miss Cook: the teacher who would flunk you for fun. The one who had a reputation for being all business, straitlaced and thought to be missing the facial muscles that made smiling possible. I still laugh at the image of one of the more “mature” boys in school: his unnatural six-foot frame leaning a la James Dean against the door of Miss Cook’s class, oozing sexuality and assumed universal charm, imploring her to give him a passing grade. She, looking up at him expressionless as he pleaded his case. No dice.
Miss Cook had short straightened hair with a part that looked like it had been done by a machine, since it never wavered in it’s location, depth or length. But what made her a little less (but not completely) fearful to me was the fact that she, like my nurse mother, dressed their honey brown skin in white to go to work, and had long tapered fingers and fingernails that, through my eyes, made them both safe and nurturing beings.
Dressed in her ever-present white lab coat, Miss Cook would hold court in the laboratory classroom. We had been left with one of the spoils of burgeoning white flight; a fully functioning state -of -the -art laboratory in our now almost all minority high school. Miss Cook would remind us often of the resources we had available and she was determined that we would make the best use of all of them. In her class, if you did the work, you got a good grade; if you didn’t do the work, you got a bad grade. It was as simple as that. Miss Cook made it clear she expected excellence and achievement and we were all capable of both. Always a lover of words and not much interested in, or as previously mentioned, good at, science, I was intimidated by her no nonsense approach, her expectations, and my own fears of not doing well in her class. But since I did so well in all my other classes, I pushed those fears aside. I was super smart and gifted, after all, and had even been sent to “gifted class” in the sixth grade.
As the semester wore on, I would sit quietly (a monumental strain for me) in my chair and listen to Miss Cook give her lectures and try to understand what she was trying to teach us, but I remained lost much of the time. It was becoming more and more clear that I was not picking up what she was putting down. I began to have nightmares about the start of the dreaded annual class project: The Dissection of the Frog. This project would count for 70% of our grade in Miss Cook’s class and I was still struggling and not quite understanding why.
On the beginning day of the annual project, the first thing I saw as I entered the laboratory classroom door were the boxes from Acme (or something or other) Scientific Education Company. Knowing what they contained and hoping they did not smell bad or have legs like the ones my Louisiana family liked to fry made my stomach lurch.
As Miss Cook distributed the frog dissection kits to the class, I remember thinking; I am never going to get through this. I finally had to admit it. I just did not get biology. A tangle of thoughts raced through my mind at once: how would I explain this bad grade to my parents how would I get into a good college if I failed this class it is really Miss Cook’s fault because she is so mean WHO NEEDS BIOLOGY ANYWAY? My head spinning as I stood there staring at that dead, dried up amphibian, I almost did not hear Miss Cook when she said, “Sheryl do you need some help?”
I didn’t know how to react. Up to that point, my educational experience had not included any offers of assistance. A mostly well-behaved student who infrequently fell into the well of discipline, I had gotten used to the inattention and indifference that had been the only other offerings. These had become the tenets of my so-called learning experience. I did not know what to make of the teacher before me. Up to that point, I had been convinced that I was on my own in this learning thing.
I don’t know if I actually said yes to Miss Cook’s offer of help or just looked so desperate that she understood that I did indeed. It was as though a great weight had been lifted from me. I exhaled and gave in to the fact that I could not do it without her. With her long glove -encased fingernails and soft pitch, she guided me through the dissection with gentle encouragement. I knew she must have helped other students, but it seemed she was there just for me.
Over the course of the project, together we took the trip through the digestive, respiratory, circulatory, central nervous and skeletal systems, while she assured me I could do it. And I did. At each step I even understood what I had just done! Trumpets, sunshine and Archie Bell and the Drells new 45 rpm all at once! It was then I knew Miss Odie B. Cook was special. Up to that point, no other teacher had shown her level of interest and caring. But during the project, Miss Cook didn’t just help me cut up that frog and name its internal organs; she provided the instruments for my life symphony.
She did not give me the answers or solutions. She showed me how to find them for myself. With an uncharacteristic semi-smile, she answered my questions with enthusiasm. She gave me the understanding I could do whatever I set my mind to if I tried. She taught me that sometimes we all need help and that asking for help does not signal failure. That just because something may be difficult, does not mean it is insurmountable. And just because some things come easy, you can’t go through life without the tools to handle the hard stuff. That we all have what it takes to figure it out. And though her enlightenment, she taught me that my past teacher’s lack of engagement had been in some cases, benign neglect, and in others, actual attempts to inhibit inquisitiveness; a cornerstone for learning.
Without Miss Cook’s intervention at that pivotal age, I may have never understood the power of understanding that one’s world is as big or as small as one makes it. I may not have known the rewards of intellectual curiosity that can only happen when you step out of your comfort zone. I may not have understood that when I chose words over science, it was because I was choosing my heart-felt interest, not my limitation. I was making an individual choice rather than engaging in acquiescence. Miss Cook gave me forever, beyond priceless gifts that settled in my center and have continued to guide me.
So in my senior year, when seemingly unprovoked, my chemistry teacher told me, in front of the entire class, that I was not college material, I was able to send him to the ether with all my past uncaring teachers. Thanks to the gifts from Miss Cook he was powerless in his attempt to instill doubt. I knew he was just handing me a problem I would have to resolve. And when that same teacher hid my chemistry textbook so I could not get my diploma, and gave me an “F “to try to block my college acceptance, I never worried because I had the tools from Miss Cook. And even when, after I had been accepted to college with a full scholarship, and my high school counselor told me it would be best if I went to trade school, I could hear Miss Cook whisper in my ear, “ She doesn’t get it. Just thank her for her time and leave.”
Because of the foundation Miss Cook laid for me over that dead frog, I graduated high school with honors, completed college and had a successful management career. From time to time, when things would get difficult, I would just reach back and tap some of the profit from my perpetually funded Miss Cook endowment and move forward. When my daughter decided she wanted to be a scientist, no doubt my experience with Miss Cook made that, just, well, normal.
Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington D.C. school system and the founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, once wrote in Time magazine, “ Teachers are the most important school-based factor for student learning.” Miss Rhee also once said that a single bad teacher could change a child’s trajectory for life.
But a single special teacher and role model like Miss Cook can do the same.
Sheryl J. Bize Boutte
Writer and Management Consultant