Rabun Gap Stories

Faculty Feature: Mike Cook ‘71, Upper School Humanities Teacher

“Rabun Gap is special. Through the years this school has attracted a number of people who seem called to do what they are doing here.This is a beautiful place, filled with good people who share that calling to teach whether that teaching be in the classroom, the fields and courts, the dorms -- any of the places where we get the chance to touch lives and try to help them be better. I like being a part of that team.”
Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School holds a special place in the heart of humanities teacher Mr. Mike Cook ‘71. One of several faculty members who also hold the title of alumni, Mr. Cook grew up on campus as a faculty child and followed in the footsteps of his father to become a teacher.  Today, with more than 40 years of experience, he teaches American Literature at the Upper School and works with our students in the Teaching and Learning Center (TLC).

Mr. Cook met his wife, Mrs. Sandy Cook, at Rabun Gap and they were married in the Emily & Ernest Woodruff Chapel. Mrs. Cook has taught math for almost four decades at Rabun Gap and she now works alongside Mr. Cook in TLC.

Mr. Cook obtained a degree in Journalism from the University of Georgia, later earning a teaching certificate. Before coming back to Rabun Gap to join the faculty in 1993, he worked for Foxfire and taught for Rabun County Schools. He and Mrs. Cook have two children and two grandchildren.

What was it like growing up on campus? What did your parents do here?
Growing up on this campus probably spoiled me. When I was in the third grade, we moved to the house that eventually became -- for a time -- the  Middle School annex on the hill behind the dining hall. I had friends all around this valley, and every house on campus was occupied by a family I knew, even if they did not have children. In the summer, the pool was open every afternoon, with a lifeguard, so I learned to swim and dive there, and it was a gathering place for those of us who lived in the valley. There was a collection of “campus brats” who grew up together on campus, but many more Rabun Gap students lived almost within sight, either in Dillard or around the Wolffork or Bettys Creek Roads. Most of us played basketball, so if we were not in the pool or a local creek, we were in the gym or on the basketball court in Dillard. Everything and everyone was in walking or biking distance.
My parents moved here when I was about two years old. My father had been teaching at River Bend School in Gainesville, GA, but Morris Brown was his close friend, and Mr. Brown and others suggested that Dad might want to work here.
My father coached boys and girls basketball and he taught math, among other things. He also had responsibility for keeping the gym and swimming pool maintained and clean. My mother was secretary to the principal.
What made you choose to work at Rabun Gap?
I had been working for Foxfire, teaching at Rabun County High School, and Sandy was working here. We wanted to build a family but discovered that working in different schools did not lend itself to being together. We tended to pass each other on the roads and wave. A job opened up here; I applied and got the position.

I had actually started my teaching career here in 1977 after graduating from the University of Georgia with a degree in Journalism. Foxfire had asked me to come back and spend two or three years starting a small format television project based on the Foxfire ideas of conducting interviews with community people about how mountain families had lived in this area a generation or more back in time. When the county schools consolidated to support building a new central high school, all community students were required to leave Rabun Gap to attend the new school. Foxfire staff decided that the program had to stay with the community students, so I worked in the county school with Foxfire for the next 16 years before taking the job here.

Of course, this place is home. Even though the school has changed in many different ways, there is still a core spirit that has not changed. This place has always tried to offer students more than an academic education. I grew up with students who farmed with their families as well as students who came from the all around the southeast region and needed financial help to get a top-notch education that might not have been available to them at home. When I returned, I found that students were still offered that kind of opportunity, but the field from which they might come had expanded. One example is a student from Eastern Europe who told me that she would return to her grandparents’ farm for the summer where she had learned how to plow fields and milk cows. Another is a boy whose parents had come from a village where everyone farmed and there was only one road to get in and out of the place. As had been the case when I was a student, these students might mix with others who are used to maids and servants. What is it worth to learn to live with others who are so different both economically and culturally? Our world seems to be pushing toward increasing polarization economically and socially such that those at the top and those at the bottom have little common ground. Students here have to find ways to reach out to each other -- to live together.

I think that maintaining this atmosphere is important work.
Why did you decide to become a teacher?  
When I left Rabun Gap for college, I wanted to be an engineer. Yet, because of my experience with Foxfire, I found myself teaching others to take pictures, edit articles, write articles, conduct interviews, and so on. I enjoyed that work. To make a long story short, I left engineering and followed my interest in writing and interviewing by getting a degree in journalism.
When Foxfire asked me to come back and build a small format television project, I thought it would be a fun combination of working with sophisticated equipment and doing journalism. Imagine my surprise when the task pushed me into the classroom. Because the state of Georgia did not certify teachers in the field of journalism, I found myself having to be trained as a Language Arts teacher. The certification process was easy and fun, and I found myself (somehow I keep using that phrase) teaching regular English classes in order to be able to work with students to produce radio and television. Again, I found the work to be fun and challenging. I worked for Foxfire for 16 years. When the position opened here, I had the skills to manage a classroom and the credentials to teach Literature and English. Obviously, I had not planned this path.
I love teaching. One of my favorite things about teaching is that my students are almost always involved in research projects. I get to learn from them. Seeing students learn new things and think through the implications of what they learn is an amazing transformation to behold. I don’t think I will ever get tired of it.
What is your favorite memory from growing up here? What is your favorite memory since working here?
This is a difficult question to answer. I have many favorite memories. One set of memories that made an enormous difference in my life is meeting a number of older people who lived around the area. I met these people through my work with Foxfire, and they taught me a lot about living. Sometimes it was the lesson of their faith; sometimes it was the lesson of taking what they had and making the most of it; sometimes it was just their explanation of the ways of thinking and acting that helped them build decent lives and families. Those people changed me, and the work of interviewing them helped me to understand important aspects of the lives of my own parents and grandparents.
The class of memories since I have returned to work here again centers around people. I guess that one memory that sticks out is the Christmas break when we kept a group of boys who came to us from another country to play basketball. We celebrated Christmas together, including traditions that they brought from home. Our house was pure chaos during that time, but I look back on it with a smile on my face.
Perhaps I am being too careful here, but I have avoided naming these guys in recognition of their privacy. They will read this, and they will know who they are; I think that is enough.
How have you seen Rabun Gap change over the years?
When I graduated, this school was a half public and half private school students. My graduating class had about 35 students; the entire school was about 240 in grades 8 through 12. The lower school was a gym. The bottom floor was the student center, and it had two bowling lanes. Pins were set by a combination of a machine and a worker who picked up felled pins and placed them into the appropriate spot in the pinsetter machine. The swimming pool was not enclosed. Our international population was tiny. Students were required to work around campus in the afternoons doing everything from picking up trash to cleaning the buildings and grounds to working in the dining hall. Some worked the dairy. Those guys had to get up early in the morning to help milk the school’s dairy herd. As I grew up here, I never drank milk that was more than a day or two old. One of the afternoon jobs was making sure that the stoker was filled with coal. If that job was not properly done, the dorms and classroom building would have no heat. The main classroom building (Hodgson Hall) had a sign on the outside pointing out that the basement was useable as a fallout shelter. (Look that one up. Remember that we were in the midst of the Cold War.) The commons between the library and the classroom building was a parking lot. I could go on for pages. . .
What made you decide to stay?
I think that a human being is lucky if he or she finds something in life that is enjoyable and challenging to do and that will actually pay a wage. I feel called to teach, and I love what I do. Amazingly, I get paid to do it. Rabun Gap is special. Through the years this school has attracted a number of people who seem called to do what they are doing here. One of the most common conversations I have with others who work here seems to revolve around that idea of being called to be here. This is a beautiful place which is filled with good people who share that calling to teach whether that teaching be in the classroom, the fields and courts, the dorms -- any of the places where we get the chance to touch lives and try to help them be better. I like being a part of that team. That is why I stay.
What was your first teaching experience?
The first time I was actually in charge of a class I was 19 years old teaching a group of Navajo students in New Mexico how to put a magazine together.   
What interests do you pursue outside of the classroom?  
I love music. I play guitar and sing, and I have a little recording equipment that I play with. I have an extensive collection of CD’s and vinyl records and a decent system for playback. I like to read and I am a science fiction fan, though I also read history and books and magazines that keep me informed about science and technology. I subscribe to two science fiction magazines, and I am always hopeful that Hollywood will produce the occasional good sci-fi movie, though I must admit that they usually miss the boat rather badly. I like to camp. We have a small camp trailer, and that has made camping fun. At this point in my life, I am not a fan of tents.
What are you known for? 
This one is hard, but I hope that when I die I am known as someone who cares and tries to meet people where they are with an encouraging word.  
What makes Rabun Gap special?
This one is easier. Rabun Gap is special partly because it is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but mainly it is special because of the people who walk these grounds.
What’s the most interesting thing about you that we wouldn’t learn from your resume alone? 
I love living away from the madness of major cities. I like to have to keep in mind that bears are around; I see deer and wild turkey on my way to school. One of my neighbors has seen a panther (a mountain lion) on his porch, and I have seen one run across the field in front of my house. I watch hawks from my porch. Traveling toward Franklin, I have seen a bald eagle, and I have sat and watched a family of foxes near the church that I attend. I like the fact that I can walk to a waterfall from my house or take a different route and see ducks and geese on a lake. Books can teach us many things, but these experiences matter most to me. Without them, the books don’t talk.
What do you like about being a high school teacher?
Working with students keeps me young. I constantly have to adjust to the world that my students experience, and it is not exactly the same as my own. Yet we share the essentials of being human beings, and that sharing never gets old.
Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School is a private, coeducational day and boarding school for grades Pre-K through 12. Centrally located between Atlanta, GA, Greenville, SC, and Asheville, NC, we prepare young people for college, career, and a lifetime of leadership and service.