Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Celebrating Bill Cook, the high school teacher who encouraged my literary life

Bill Cook was my teacher and mentor in high school, and one of the most important influences on my life. I should add that I have been fortunate and blessed to have experienced some amazing teachers, including the poet Anne Sexton and the eighteenth century scholar Paul Fussell, but none were better teachers or more important than Bill Cook. 
When I arrived at Princeton High School with hopes of becoming a poet, aspiring to be anotheer Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot, he  gave me all the encouragement and support I needed. On many afternoons I would hang out after school with him, sometimes till 4:00 or even 5:00 pm, and have intense conversations about my favorite readings from Ovid to Kafka,  and he was also willing to listen and give me feedback. Cook's readings were as eclectic as mine, and his mind just a as curious and quirky. 
He was a brilliant teacher, with a great sense of humor.  He was also  master of the art of "put on." Once he was teaching "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in an honors class, and argued with a straight face that Prufrock was an heroic figure. Finally, one of the student (I wish it had been me) raised his hand and said, "He seems like a loser to me. " Cook smiled a toothy grin and we realized he was putting us on. After that, we never accepted anything that Bill said uncritically.
Bill also give me glimpses into what it's like to be a black man in a white world. He used to moonlight as a bartender in New Hope and one of his customs was a member of the White Citizen's Council. Bill pretended to be an Uncle Tom and listened to everything this man said and just smiled and said, "Yes, sir." Later he'd tell us what this bigot said and helped us to see the white world from a black perspective. 
I also remember when he gave a speech at a gathering of teachers--this was when I myself had become a teacher--and his talk was so funny and provocative that many of us gave him a standing ovation. I noticed that others did not seem amused or pleased. Maybe it was the part about quoting his mother who said of someone: "He was so bad he busted the bottom out of hell."
The obit doesn't mention that Bill was gay. I didn't realize this until my senior year and a faculty wife told me, "Bill Cook is as gay as pink ink." I couldn't believe it at first. There was nothing stereotypically gay about Bill, unlike my French teacher, Carmen Precioso (yes, that was his real name!). But whether Bill or gay or not didn't make any difference to me. These two teachers were by far the best I had in high school. Flamboyant and funny, Carmen spoke only French in the classes I took with him. He was passionate about French literature, and we read Camus, Racine, Voltaire and other classic French writers--for which I am deeply grateful.  Bill introduced me to the full range of English and American literature. What a gift these two gay men were in my life! They are probably the reason I have never felt uncomfortable about gay people. After all, where would I be today without them?
I am glad that I was able to get in touch with Bill just before he died (thanks to our mutual friend Peter Bien of Dartmouth College). In a series of emails I let him know how much he meant to me and he reciprocated with kind words of appreciation. In this age when teachers, especially public school teachers, are disrespected, I am glad that I honored a man who transformed countless lives with his love of learning Reading Bill's obit, listing his remarkable achievements as a teacher actor and writer, I realize that I was indeed fortunate and blessed to have a man of Bill Cook's calibre as my teacher and friend. He went from being the chair of English department at Princeton High to the chair of English and Black Studies at Dartmouth, and was one of the most outstanding educators of his generation. He had a far-ranging, agile mind that could make insightful and often unexpected connections between ancient Greek playwrights and contemporary black poets, between Catullus and Charlie Parker. He made literature and drama seem way to cool to be confined to a class room.
Rest in peace, dear friend! I will cherish you in my heart as long as I have breath and can recite Prufrock by heart. 

William W. Cook, 83, of Hanover, NH (formerly of Trenton), died on Monday, May 15, 2017 at the Genesis Center in Lebanon, NH. Born and educated in Trenton, Prof. Cook was a stellar student in the Trenton Public School System. He was the Valedictorian of his graduating class at Trenton State College, where he majored in English. Prof. Cook went on to teach English and Drama in the public school systems of Trenton and Princeton, NJ. He was the Israel Evans Professor of Oratory and Belles Lettres Emeritus at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, where he had served as chair of the Departments of English and African American Studies. Prof. Cook also served on several key governing councils and committees at the college, including the Committee Advisory to the President. He served as President, National Chair, and a founding leader of the National Council of Teachers of English, the Conference on College Communication and Composition, and the National Black Theater Conference, respectively. He also led the first years of the Mississippi Delta Teaching Project. In addition to earning a reputation for being one of the most effective educators of his generation, Prof. Cook was also an accomplished poet, author, and production director. His work touched on African American and ancient Greek and Roman poetry and also explored the intersections of music and poetry. Bill was widely known for talents as an illustrator and artist. He had a satiric eye and a clever pen. Son of the late Rev. Cleve Cook, Sr. and Frances Cook, Bill is survived by many nieces and nephews in and around Trenton, including his beloved sister Louise’s son, Leonard Watkins (and wife, Vera). Funeral services will be held on Saturday, May 20, 2017 at 10:00 am at Union Baptist Church, 301 Pennington Ave., Trenton, NJ. Interment will be in Greenwood Cemetery. Calling hours will be held from 9 to 10 am at the church. Arrangements are under the direction of Campbell Funeral Chapel, Trenton.
Published in The Trentonian on May 18, 2017

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