Dozens of postcards from across the globe add color to the room. Each is a remembrance to a teacher who inspired, a teacher who asked students to peek beyond the borderlines. Many of these postcards are treasured up on a poster board, made into a collage of student experience around the world.
The postcards belong to Dr. Raquel Cook, a former Wall Street employee who turned to teaching in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
Cook, an avid traveler who has visited around 40 different countries, used to work just to fund her travels and interest in the arts.
“I was doing it for the money,” Cook said of her job with a corporate finance firm on Wall Street.
Cook said she didn’t really enjoy the job and left as soon as the workday ended. In her words, she was just a “peon” working to pay for her real interests.
When 9/11 hit, all of that changed.
As the first plane struck, Cook was exiting a train beneath the twin towers. Everyone assumed it was a bomb, she said. Communication and electricity were out, so she and the other passengers had to go up into the open, into the chaos and debris. As they emerged, Cook saw the second plan strike.
“There was nowhere for us to go. We just ran and tried to dodge whatever debris was falling down,” Cook said, who took shelter in a basement while the chaos continued, eventually walking the 13-14 miles back to her home.
As a result of the attacks, Cook’s company went under and she was told to look for new work. She didn’t know what to do, though she knew she no longer wanted to work in banking.
After some time with family and being unemployed, Cook decided to pursue teaching. She said she was inspired to teach because of the reactions she saw to 9/11.
According to Cook, people didn’t seem to understand why 9/11 had occurred. They wanted to do things like build walls and kick people out of the country. She felt these responses were the opposite of what was needed.
“The answer was in teaching people to listen to each other,” Cook said, whose travels helped her to understand why 9/11 occurred, though she certainly does not condone it.
She set out to teach young people about other cultures—to teach them about other perspectives and about how to resolve conflict, discuss and listen without insisting that there is only one right way or answer.
After receiving her teaching certificate, Cook began to teach English at American Fork High School, where she was once a student herself. She designed an English class that would expose students to other cultures and perspectives from around the world.
Cook allowed her students to design their own assessments and learning, giving them a lot of freedom to explore. She organized her teaching to focus on different regions of the world for different sections. Students did things like read the Qur’an and other religious texts, study about the atomic bomb and Hiroshima from a Japanese perspective and take field trips to synagogues, mosques and film festivals. Cook would also have her students move beyond their comfort zone by trying new foods like sushi and curry or by watching foreign films with subtitles.
Many of Cook’s students have written to tell her how much they learned from her class. She has received hundreds of postcards from students’ travels and also has a collection of trinkets they’ve sent here such as Russian nesting dolls and a variety of souvenirs from Asia.
After teaching at American Fork High School and simultaneously working on her Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction, Cook became a professor of education at UVU, hoping to have a “multiplier effect” by training new teachers.
“My biggest goal as a teacher was to get [my students] to want to travel,” Cook said. “I just wanted them to be curious and to find their own answers.”
Cook focused her curriculum on empathy and understanding. Though she admits that teaching is difficult, she believes she is making a difference.
By Sierra Wilson
Photography: Rachel Haslam