24 October 2011

Kathy Hooks

Every teacher who sticks with teaching for more than the national average of 3 years has someone to thank. In fact, we generally have many people to thank. But each of us has someone who had been there, and done that before us, and who was willing to reach out and help a new teacher. Last week, the world lost one of those people, and I'd like to try and pay a tribute to her in my own mediocre way.

But before I pay my tribute, I'll send you to read her obituary.

Last Sunday, Kathy Hooks, a former co-worker, mentor, and friend passed away. She was a teacher and mentor to me for the three years I spent at River Forest High School in New Chicago, Indiana. River Forest, by the time I got there in 2002, was not a great place. The school, which had once teemed with student life, was a shell of its former self. The building was full of empty rooms, full of dusty memories of better days. The first year I taught there it was the poorest per capita school in the state. The last year I taught there, a student broke in and lit the place on fire. 3/4 of the students received free or reduced lunch. It stood alone, proud in the community, but sad. 

You see, River Forest had been built in the heady days of the early 1960's in Northwest Indiana, a place called "The Region". The Region is a land of proud hard workers, on the South Shore of Lake Michigan. It had been booming with post-war prosperity; three steel mills were operating nearly around the clock. As workers fled Chicago, many made their homes in the bedroom communities along the South Shore Rail Road. New Chicago boomed. There was a need for a high school, and RF was born.

But by 2002, all of the mills had closed. The commuters had moved to St. John and Munster. The area was on the verge of ghetto. The people were tough, and stubborn, and proud, but that wouldn't make the mills re-open. River Forest High School stood alone, strong as it's mascot (the Ingot) as something left from those boom days. 

Kathy was in many ways the soul of River Forest. She had taught there since nearly the school's opening. She had been there when the steel mills were still going strong. In fact, she taught the best man in my parents' wedding. Even as the mills closed and economic collapse set in, she stayed and she taught.  Even as the gangs encroached on the district boundaries, and chaos was knocking at the front door, she stood firm, believing that ALL kids; not just those in good neighborhoods, not just those who had parents who fought to get them in charter schools, not just those with money deserved a quality education.

She didn't just teach, either. Many people in a situation like that (when I met her she'd "only" been teaching at RF for 35 years) are mailing it in until they can get their pension check from the state. Not Kathy. She was still a sparkplug. She was still in the halls. She was still hocking cookies during passing period to support the students she coached in academic decathlon and National Honor Society. That was where she showed me how to make a difference in kids' lives.

Every afternoon after school, the diamonds in the rough met in her room to train for academic decathlon. Kids came to her from a myriad of terrible backgrounds. Sure, there were some from middle class families, but they were the exception, not the rule. RF was the smallest school competing in decathlon, and by far the poorest. She could have easily bred a culture of "happy to be here" and be glad we're competing. But that wasn't the way she was going to do things. If they were going to do it, they were going to do it well. She was unwilling to accept an attitude of poor us. I watched her, year after year, inspire students and push them beyond where they thought they could go. She showed them what hard work could do for them.  They were rewarded. My second year with them, the team was the smallest to qualify for the state competition. I have no memory of how we fared, but I treasure the team picture of us. The look on those kids' faces is priceless. They, the refuse of The Region, the poor, the forgotten and counted out had done something. Kathy's work and dedication were the reason why.

Sure, Kathy received a pile of awards. Hell, the list alone makes up 1/4 of her obituary. But there's a line just before the list of awards starts that speaks more about her than any of those awards ever could. It is this simple sentence:

"Kathy was a retired teacher from the River Forest School Corporation with 41 years of service at River Forest High School in New Chicago, Indiana"

That's the sentence that attempts to summarize a life dedicated to changing lives for the better.  She taught students at one of the most down-trodden places in the world for 41 years. She inspired staff for 41 years. She changed lives for 41 years. She gave 41 years, fully 40% of her entire life and 80% of her adult life to a place and an idea. The place was River Forest, and the idea was that one person could make a difference. The place will never be the same without Mrs. Hooks in the downstairs science lab, and I can only hope that the idea will never go away. I feel confident that with as many lives as she touched, it never will. 

Rest in peace, Kathy, you've earned it.

p.s. Please don't think that Kathy was the only person doing this kind of thing at River Forest. She wasn't. Kirk Whiting, Sandy Mihalik, Jack Burton, Molly Krodel, Gale Robertson and dozens of others are giving their best every day for the kids that society wants to ignore. RF, and the family there, would make for a great documentary. Alas, America doesn't have the heart to watch that story.


  1. Jacqueline (Michalik) WongOctober 24, 2011 at 9:37 PM

    I've been to a lot of schools, but River Forest really was special. You are correct when you describe it as a family. Those teachers really had hearts and did so much with so little. Mrs. Hooks was definitely top of the tier. That line, saying she worked for 41 years at River Forest might not mean a lot to people outside our community, but it really says so much about her character. I've missed her since high school, and I'll continue to miss her, but I know she deserves the rest. She's truly unforgettable.

  2. Thank you for writing this. She was one of my favorite teachers of all time and really helped make my high school career both useful for the real world, and also enjoyable. I can't really express how grateful I was to have her as a teacher the three years that I did. She won't be forgotten in my heart.

  3. When I left, that what I took with me. It was a sense of shared goals, and shared suffering. I still treasure my pictures from RF, and though I've now been at 3 other schools, RF is the place that resonates as family.

    I think that every other place I've worked has felt corporate. Lots of that has to do with transient people and school size, but a lot of it also has to do with the attitudes of the people. At RF, I believe that people were in it to change lives. Otherwise, you left.

    Like Van Drie said to me when I left, "I wish you were staying, but I understand why you have to go. As a teacher, you can stay here for your whole career and genuinely change a couple of kids' lives. Or, you can go somewhere else, and have the best stories in the teacher's lounge.