GENEVA – Before he became a middle school social studies teacher, James Cook had a whole other life.
He farmed. His mother’s side of the family were farmers down near Peoria and Kewanee.
“We grew everything,” Cook said. “My uncle ran the farm. We grew alfalfa, oats, corn and soybeans and we raised pigs and cattle. One of the highlights of my younger years when I was 19, 20 years old was when my uncle went on vacation. And there I was with about 40 head of cattle and 600 pigs for two weeks.”
Cook also worked construction and managed a retail pharmacy.
“I went into teaching late,” Cook said.
Now after almost 30 years, Cook is retiring from Geneva Middle School North.
He prefers teaching seventh graders about American government than high schoolers, who tend not to react.
“The thing about middle school teaching is you always get a reaction,” Cook said. “They have so much energy. Maybe it’s not the reaction you want all the time … but middle schoolers are not afraid to get involved and show a reaction, to get excited about something. They’re not too cool. It’s really a fun age to teach.”
Some years he taught the Constitution five times a day during middle school and three to four times during summer school.
“There’s something in the news no matter who’s president and there’s plenty to tie right back to the Constitution,” Cook said.
Around July 4, the Supreme Court takes its break and hands down a lot of decisions right during his summer school classes.
“It’s interesting to talk about those things. Some were pertinent to what kids are doing today,” Cook said. “They ruled in one case that police could not look at your phone without a warrant.”
In the 1990s, Cook was known for his hands-on approach to teaching about Medieval times – ending with students wearing costumes of the era and acting out a fair and feast.
Then the curriculum changed and he taught American history, including having students wear colonial attire and creating a period marketplace.
You could say his heart was in Colonial America, at the founding of the nation.
“I just really enjoy where our country came from. The Founding Fathers and the Constitution they wrote has withstood the test of time,” Cook said. “There’s only 27 amendments. … The first 10 were added right at the beginning of our country and it’s only been changed 17 times in the last 230 years. It’s pretty amazing for a document to withstand that amount of time. … I really enjoy teaching it so the next generation can appreciate and follow it as well.”
Cook also is known for his role in organizing the Veterans Day ceremony at the middle school.
At last year’s observance – the 26th – keynote speaker Van C. Stone, a decorated Vietnam veteran, presented an American flag “engraved to Jim Cook and the Geneva Middle School North staff.”
Cook said he knows students will forget certain things about certain periods in history, but he hopes to have instilled lifelong learning.
“If I can infect them with the desire to learn and the tools to learn, I accomplished what I wanted to do,” Cook said.
He will miss the teachers on the seventh grade White team and the friends he’s made over the years “and the wonderful kids.”
“We are pretty fortunate to have the families and the kids we teach in Geneva,” Cook said. “There was a teacher who used to teach down South. It was not as good where she was. She said here was like teaching in Camelot.”
Cook said he does not yet have plans for what he will do in retirement.
A former student Vivian Drake, now an eighth grader at North, praised Cook’s style of teaching social studies.
“He is really nice and really funny. He is very personable,” Vivian said. “He is not an intimidating teacher. He’s easy to get along with and ask for help, especially for coaching.”
Cook is her track coach.
“He’s very good to give you corrections in a nice way,” Vivian said. “And he lets us know he only wants what’s best for us and cares for us.”