Named Professor Emerita of Humanities by the Vermont State Colleges Board of Trustees in 2010, Kathleen “Kit” Cooke, Class of 1963, received her BA from Wellesley College and began her teaching career in 1968 as a history teacher at the Westover School in Connecticut. Along the way, Kit earned two Master’s degrees in medieval history, one from McGill University and the other from Oxford University before becoming a professor at Johnson State College in Vermont for 21 years. We asked Kit to reflect on what inspired her to devote her professional life to education.
Perhaps about now as the summer draws to a close, many of you are gearing up for a new school year. Maybe you’re returning to The White Mountain School for another year as a student, or sending a child off to college, or, if you’re in the field of education itself, preparing to welcome a new group of students into your classrooms and your lives.
Having now been retired for a few years from a lifetime in education as a student and as teacher (indeed, as a kid: I’m a prep-school “faculty brat” myself, having been brought home from the hospital more than 65 years ago into a dormitory where my parents had charge of about a dozen 8th and 9th grade boys), I’m rather wistfully reflecting on my career: how I got started, why I stayed with it, and just what that career has meant to me.
In many ways, I know, my time at St. Mary’s (as The White Mountain School was called then) set me on that path. From the moment I arrived as a freshman in the fall of 1959, I felt right at home. The school was a perfect match for me: small, with only about 90 students, set in a beautiful spot where we could see the top of Mt. Washington nearly every day from the big window in the Great Hall, and where the faculty and students formed a true “family.” From the beginning, I experienced interesting, lively classes and dedicated, caring teachers who challenged me always to aim higher (even if I was quite hopeless, as I’m sure Kiki Rice found out when she had me in Drama or Hamish MacEwan discovered when he had us in the studio working on sculptures…) and who seemed to love what they were doing. No one at St. Mary’s in those days could ever forget Fred Steele, whose sly witticisms enlivened his biology classes and who always showed us not only how to study the alpine plants we came across on our hikes but also gave us the perfect example of how to live a life enriched by the wonders of the natural environment. Mr. Doughty’s Latin classes exposed me to the beauty of Latin poetry and to the culture of our classical heritage, as did my freshman English course, where we read Homer, Sophocles, and Aristotle, as well as Shakespeare.
All of these classes – and many others, like Don Miller’s classes in Russian literature– gave me new and wonderful ideas to play with. Above all, though, for me it was the Rev. Clinton Blake’s classes in Ancient, Medieval, and Modern European History that gave me my future. His own love and knowledge of the subject were clearly evident and stimulated my deep love of the subject; his demands for precision and accuracy — along with his example of probing more deeply important historical questions – prepared me well for the challenges of college-level work in the field and shaped so much of my later intellectual growth as both a student and a teacher.
I’m deeply grateful for my time at St. Mary’s: nothing can be better than a close-knit community with an abiding sense of purpose, where one is expected to contribute to the life of that community—be it by spending time on kitchen duty or vacuuming the Great Hall, or clearing brush on the ski slopes — and where one can find such good and joyful friends. These elements, together with the truly wonderful, humane teachers gave me, I think, what I wanted to recreate however I could and wherever I taught. The habits of mind, the love of an academic subject, and being a part of a larger whole which values not just learning but “learning with joy” are all reasons I went into teaching in the first place and why I remained in the field for 40 years. I can only hope that I’ve done half so well in helping students experience what I had at St. Mary’s (and at other places I’ve been so fortunate to have studied): the heart of a true Liberal Arts education. It is, in my mind, a precious gift.
Continuing her passion for lifelong learning and service to others, Kit became the Diocesan Coordinator (Vermont) for Episcopal Relief & Development, the major outreach and disaster-response arm of the Episcopal Church, after retiring from Johnson State College. She continues to pursue historical research & writing, enjoys reading Scandinavian (and other) crime thrillers, collects stamps, paints 54mm model soldiers and otherwise enjoys life on the shores of Lake Champlain in Burlington, VT.