This summer, I’ll be returning for my 30-year reunion at Tates Creek Senior High School in Lexington, Kentucky. As the event approaches, some of the people who influenced me as a teenager have been coming to mind, especially my two favorite teachers, Mrs. Cooke and Mr. Jordan.
Mrs. Helen Cooke, was my senior English teacher. A dignified lady with a lovely Southern accent, she was unfailingly polite and expected nothing less from us. From the first day of class to the last, she stressed the importance of following the precepts of Sheridan Baker’s Practical Stylist. Our papers came back covered with comments, questions and circled passages. Now that I teach law and politics to college students, I realize how much time and thought her grading required. Under her guidance, we studied the coming to consciousness in great works like Oedipus Rex and the Book of Job. For a teenager, the notion that blinding oneself could actually lead to metaphysical insight was shocking and intriguing.
Mr. Barry Jordan, my U.S. history teacher, bore a strong resemblance to George Will—including the bow ties and ideology. Mr. Jordan got us to look beyond facts and dates. How, he asked, did historians view Jacksonian democracy or the Reconstruction period? What were our views? As a 17-year-old living in a former border state, Reconstruction fascinated me. After the ravages of the Civil War, Reconstruction was a period of promise and hope. The competing forces of progress and counter-reaction resonated with my life in Lexington, where my family was strongly involved in the civil rights movement.
Mrs. Cooke and Mr. Jordan really pushed me to think, to write, and to consider multiple perspectives on learning and life. More importantly, they taught me to teach myself. Their teaching inspired and challenged me not just in their classrooms at Tates Creek, but to this day. I believe my success as an undergraduate and then a law student at Yale University, and as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, is due in large measure to them. I can never thank them enough. I hope I made my gratitude clear to Mrs. Cooke before she passed away. And I plan to thank Mr. Jordan and my other teachers when I return to Lexington.
I believe there are many Mrs. Cookes and Mr. Jordans in this world. In every country, there are teachers who put their minds, hearts and souls into their work without receiving great compensation or glory in return. To all the teachers who have worked so hard to prepare and inspire our students by praising, pushing, criticizing, then praising again, I say thank you. To all the high school graduates, whether it was this spring or many springs ago, I urge you not to wait for some reunion to say thanks to the teachers who inspired you. Do it now. I believe thanks from a student is the biggest honor a teacher can receive.