Bill and I took a trip to North Dakota to visit my old sixth-grade teacher, Rex Cook, in April this year. With a bit of updating, this post was written when we saw Rex in 2016. Rex passed away in October a beloved teacher to many.
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. With thudding heart I stayed after school, doomed to face my punishment. 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. His attention to something I had created touched me deeply.
Rex knew what students needed; often it was an encouraging word, and occasionally a stern warning. Most importantly, he offered every student – human or horse — an unwavering belief in their innate goodness. He drew out his student’s best efforts because, given a little practice, they might grow into the confidence that he already had in them. Whether training up a yearling colt or encouraging a fledgling author-to-be, he always believed in our best natures. And that belief inspired us and motivated us to reach for the limits of our capabilities.
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. During our few times roping at his place, he gave 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.
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, 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 all those 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, once 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 than 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 provided the opportunity for his students to make the right choice. Challenges were 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 changed tactics and tried 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 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; other 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, a teacher, or the Ex — voices whose criticisms rob us of confidence and set our minds to spinning. All these years later, Rex Cook is still teaching.
I am still thinking about this in the days since we 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? And what about my interactions with others? What kind of fears or distractions might be in the way?
Roping that straw steer taught me the necessity of shoveling out “malarkey” in order to be truly present to people, the world’s creatures, and this beautiful life at hand.