We took a trip to visit my old sixth grade school teacher in North Dakota a few weeks ago. It is no secret, the influence that a teacher can have on the life of a kid and I credit Rex Cook with first publishing my work. One day during class, I was writing poetry and drawing pictures in my notebook instead of doing my assignment. I was so absorbed that I didn’t notice Mr. Cook looking over my shoulder. He told me to get to work and to see him after school. He was my first male teacher, a tall man with a booming voice. With thudding heart I stayed after school, figuring I was doomed. He asked to see my notebook and then paged through it. “This is pretty good,” he said. He seemed genuinely interested and then asked if he could take a poem and put it on the bulletin board next to the pencil sharpener so the other kids could see it. I was so embarrassed and so thrilled and remember that piece of paper so vividly. It was a drawing and poem about a lighthouse.
He learned about my love for horses and invited me several times out to his little ranch where he tried to teach me how to rope. It was an abysmal endeavor. After my sixth grade year we lost touch. I was too shy to continue the friendship and going to junior high was like moving to another planet. Yet, since then I have always credited him with giving me the courage to publish. During our few times roping at his place, he did give me a rope to use for practice which I kept and still have hanging in my horse trailer.
Later, when I published my first book, I wanted to mail him a copy. I was looking him up online to get an address and discovered he is a well-known saddle-maker and had recently been inducted into the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame! It turns out he trains horses and coaches kids to ride competitively. He is now 88 years old and still doing both.
We started corresponding and I asked if he’d make me a saddle. He crafted a one-of-a-kind beauty that now, when it is not on my horse, sits alongside the rope in the horse trailer. My husband of two years, Bill Sullivan, himself a superb horseman, kept hearing about my teacher. Finally Bill said, “Let’s go see him.”
My parents had long ago left North Dakota, and in the forty-three years since the sixth grade, I had never gone back to see him. It was time. Bill and I spent five days with him. We saw the old homestead where he grew up, rode horseback with him in the Badlands, met his daughter and heard wonderful stories of horses and cowboys and the spirit of the Plains. He also tried to teach my husband and me to rope, again an abysmal undertaking, but we had some good laughs.
In returning to the places of our childhood, former homes, yards and playgrounds are often so much smaller what we remember. In the case of Rex, however, it was interesting to discover that the man turns out to be even bigger in life than he was in my memory. A rope in his hands is like a living thing, moving with grace and purpose. He has the same amazing effect on horses, working them in the manner he taught kids – with firmness and encouragement. Relaxed and positive, he always provides the opportunity for his student to make the right choice. Challenges are not to be avoided, but rather, welcomed as an opportunity to learn. If one explanation didn’t connect in the mind of his student, he changes tactics and tries another approach.
It was even more amazing to be the student again, and see how he broke down the simple task of swinging a rope to “catch” a stationary bale of hay with plastic steer horns. It was interesting to see how my own mind grew pinched by fear of failure. How my coordination stumbled over frustration. Sure, we laughed, but I was determined to do it right; to please my teacher, just as I had wanted to please him back when I was eleven years old.
Yet pleasing him had nothing to do with it. That sentiment only got in the way. To Rex, it is always about the task at hand, the matter-of-fact doing of a thing. What works. What doesn’t. He often walked away to give me space to practice. Then he’d step in again to make a suggestion.
Rex has a term for nonsense. When we talked to him about horse training methods, he nodded in agreement with some; others ideas he just dismissed as “malarkey.” Malarkey may be the absolute best word to describe those inner critics in our minds that sometimes take on the voices of people we know — maybe a parent, or a teacher, or the Ex. All voices whose criticisms rob us of confidence and set our minds to spinning.
To me that was the open door. The uncluttering of the mind. Sweeping out the malarkey in the same way one might shovel out a stall. Clarity. Presence. Focus. Only when I relaxed my mind into swinging the rope – without awareness of whether or not Mr. Cook was watching – did I finally place that loop around the steer horn. All these years later, Rex Cook is still teaching.
I am still thinking about this days after we have left North Dakota. The implications of learning with an uncluttered mind. It makes me think about how I try to teach my own horse. Am I offering him encouragement or only correction? Am I allowing his mind the freedom to enjoy the task at hand? Or is he doing it just to avoid a consequence?
Roping that straw steer also makes me notice the obstacles in my own life. It makes me think about fears and distractions and the necessity of shoveling out “malarkey” in order to move forward. In order to be truly present to the life at hand.