A special student’s dynamic personality

  • Courtesy photo—

  • Courtesy photo—

Monday, September 12, 2016 6:39PM

The fall of 2014 was my first as an English teacher at ConVal. I had spent years teaching English and coaching basketball in a variety of schools, many of them in tough urban settings with tough urban clientele. So, when I signed on to teach English in this eclectic southern New Hampshire hamlet, I was supremely confident in my ability to manage my classroom and engage my students in meaningful learning. I talked myself up to my colleagues like I was John Wayne, telling them stories of how I easily handled classes of 35 diverse inner-city students when I taught in Denver, or how my coaching experience often translated to immediate respect in the classroom. Cavalier and cocksure, I was going to push these students to work harder and learn more than they ever had. Watch out ConVal, Mr. Mac was here.



Then I met my fourth block English 11 class.



My confidence began to look more like ignorance, and instead of John Wayne, I began to feel more like John Denver (I’m guessing he would have been a poor high school teacher), as I struggled to focus, engage, and sometimes, control the students. The teacher who, weeks earlier, was spinning tales of his stellar classroom management, was now desperately seeking advice on how to get his students to generate a few pages of work, or at least listen to him. I began to create conspiracy theories; maybe I was on a hidden-camera reality television show, and soon someone would stop the class and tell me I won $20,000, or maybe I had somehow offended the school counseling department, and giving me this class was their revenge. My colleagues, my mom, my girlfriend, my girlfriend’s mom, and my dog all became sounding boards for my frustrations, and for the first time in my professional career I seriously wondered if I was any good at my job.



Then a funny thing happened. After looking for support from everyone I could think of, I found it in an unlikely place: a student. After another day of unsuccessfully imploring my students to read and write, a lanky 17-year-old strode up to my desk, and as the other students frenetically raced out the door, he waited, just to tell me I was doing a good job and that the other students would eventually appreciate how hard I was trying. That student was Cole Whole, and that seemingly small gesture meant a lot, because I don’t know if you’re familiar with teenagers, but looking out for adults, especially teachers, isn’t stereotypical teenager behavior. But Cole wasn’t a typical teenager.



He was tall – I’m guessing about 6’7” in his cowboy boots – with a personality to match. He was quick to smile and well-liked by both students and adults at ConVal. However, what I’ll remember most about Cole is that he was always himself. Brain Pickering, ConVal’s principal, remembers that “Cole was a leader by being Cole.” And Cole was a lot of things – a football player, a baseball player, a student, a cowboy, a farmhand, and a soon-to-be-firefighter – but above all these, he was a friend to anyone who needed one. Mark Holding, the head of the English department, says he never even had Cole as a student, but was always struck by his friendliness and willingness to engage in conversation. When you’re 61 years old, Holding pointed out, you don’t really expect that. And Abe Ewing, ConVal’s woodshop teacher lauded Cole’s ability to, “No matter the situation, always see a positive and find a reason to smile.”



Now, I don’t want to pretend Cole was an angel. He certainly enjoyed having his fun, and was no stranger to pushing boundaries, but even his mischief had undertones of respect and humor. Ewing recalled a time he was giving his class a serious lecture about safety and behavior when Cole came strolling in wearing daisy dukes and sending the class into hysterics. “That was the end of that lecture,” said Ewing, smiling at the memory.



Principal Pickering also shared an anecdote illustrating “Cole being Cole.”



“Last year it is likely that Cole was one of the masterminds behind a senior prank which involved some sort of grease being smeared on the stair railings. However, who do you think was one of the first ones to help clean it up? Yup, Cole. And I think a lot of other students, who might not have, lent a hand because they saw Cole helping.”



There’s no doubt people gravitated to Cole’s dynamic personality. “Him and I shared an interest in Chris LeDoux, a country singer from out West that not many people around here have heard of,” said Ewing “and by the end of the semester Cole had turned our wood working class into a bunch of LeDoux groupies.”



These are just a few of the myriad stories that capture Cole’s unique ability to connect with people; he had a genuine interest in the wellbeing of others that ignored conventional social barriers. Perhaps Steve Bartsch, Cole’s JV football coach and ConVal’s Dean of Students, sums it up best, saying, “When I think of Cole, I think of a leader who was respected by the students and adults, and was able to connect with people from all walks of life.”



Cole passed away this past summer, leaving a large void in the ConVal community, and big cowboy boots for someone to fill.



After my first pep talk from Cole, he became a before-school regular in my classroom, bringing in his cup of coffee (sometimes one for me) and lying to me about how great of a job I was doing teaching Fourth Block. Our conversations ranged anywhere from the housing market to bareback bronco riding, and eventually, in no small part to Cole, I began to get a handle on that Fourth Block class, and actually even looked forward to teaching it.



As a teacher, much of my time is spent thinking about ways I can support students, whether it be academically, socially, or emotionally. I take pride in occasionally being able to help a student reach a goal or navigate a tough time in his or her life. However, when I think about Cole, I’m not proud because I was able to guide him to success; I’m thankful, because he took the time to help me succeed. It’s rare that a teacher might say that about a student, but I bet I’m not the only one who felt that way about Cole.



He will be missed.



Scott MacNamee is a teacher at ConVal High School.