Robert Browning once wrote a poem about a group of men who have come home to be pallbearers for a beloved teacher. Naturally, his death evokes pensive thoughts in them all. I’ve been in the same frame of mind since the weekend before Thanksgiving, when I heard the news that the man who inspired me to be a teacher had died.
Charles Cope (1936-2014) was a tall, lanky man with a moustache and glasses, who in three decades at Rockdale High School had built a reputation as the most demanding English teacher in the county. He’s also the reason that I have taught English for 18 years. Outside of my father, he was the man who most shaped the direction of my life.
Mr. Cope was tough. I took graduate courses that were less intense than his senior English. We surveyed all of British literature in one year, including several novels. We wrote essays, memorized vocabulary lists and kept journals. I still remember the list of grammar mistakes he put on the board under the heading, “I cannot ‘cope’ with these errors.” And then there were the infamous tests. Anytime a student needed to beg for mercy in another class at Rockdale High, all she had to say was, “I’ve got a Cope Test on Friday.”
But in that class I found my passion for British lit. Mr. Cope’s eyes twinkled as he recited Wordsworth. His wry humor helped us through “The Canterbury Tales.” He made “Frankenstein,” “Lord of the Flies” and “Alice in Wonderland” come alive. His love for literature was infectious, and I caught a bad case of it that has lasted 25 years.
As a writing teacher, he loved carrying on a dialogue in the margins of our essays. He must have spent hours scribbling on student papers. I looked through a batch of my journal entries a few days ago, and I had to smile. Once he asked us to write about something we’d like to learn how to do. I said I wanted to juggle. He shared his wistful side as he wrote in the margin: “There’s too much juggling I have to do in my life, much less to try it for fun. I want to play the violin.” When I once joked that “my mind is a jigsaw puzzle, and I think I’m missing some of the pieces,” he kindly penciled beside that, “I’m enjoying the pieces I’ve met so far.”
Mr. Cope had a unique approach to discipline. One time in class I made a rather smart remark (which, of course, was completely out of character). Anyway, Mr. Cope calmly walked over to my desk and popped me over the head with a loose-leaf notebook. About two weeks before Spring Break, all the seniors in his class were letting our minds wander. So he lumbered into the classroom and declared: “I know everyone has Spring Break fever, but you need to understand that for the next two weeks, I will reign supreme!” And he did. For 35 years.
For 28 of those years he served as advisor to the yearbook, presiding over a small, cramped room where three generations of staff members had etched their names into a work table, and where the memories of RCHS were carefully preserved year after year. Working on the yearbook was intense, with constant deadlines and late afternoons. But whenever we got a little too giddy during a work session, Mr. Cope could always restore order by sticking his head in the room and gently saying, “Get back to work, you turkeys.”
It was a yearbook tradition to have a mock photo of Chuckles (as the annual staff affectionately called him) venting his frustrations on some poor staff member. One picture shows him trying to close the window on a staffer’s head. Another shows him threatening someone with a broom. It was all in good fun. In fact, Mr. Cope was a great sport when it came to posing for silly photos. One of my favorite shots shows him sitting in the library between two students who are engrossed in reading their literature textbooks, while he ponders the depths of Dr. Seuss.
Mr. Cope once told me that the year after he retired in 1994, he went back to Rockdale to substitute for a teacher who was sick. He said that right after the bell rang, a freshman came up to him and said, “Excuse me, Sir, do you know anything about English?” I’m reminded of Exodus 1:8: “There arose a pharaoh who knew not Joseph.”
But for those of us who sat in his class, worked with him on a yearbook, or knew him as a friend, none of us can ever forget Charles Cope. I think he realized before I did that I would be a writer and a teacher, and he constantly encouraged me. “Remember me when you win your first Putlizer,” he wrote in my yearbook. Well, I may never accomplish that, but I was looking forward to giving him an inscribed copy of my first book, published three weeks before he died.
At the end of every class period, Mr. Cope would always dismiss us with a simple line. He said, “Thank you for your attention, and have a nice day.” If that sounds familiar, for years I’ve said the same thing to my students at the end of class. It’s just my small way of paying tribute to the man who made me want to be a teacher. And maybe I’ll start carrying a loose-leaf notebook, just in case.