Parents were focused on the disease that claimed the life of Jonathan Cook. But Brittney Dixon was thinking about the man himself.
As parents, a dozen public health officials and as many television cameras gathered at Gunston Middle School last Tuesday night, Dixon remembered a teacher whose attitude and dedication helped her through her three years at Gunston.
?Mr. Cook was Mr. Cook; everybody liked Mr. Cook,? she said. ?He was always nice, he was always happy, he always had something nice to say.?
Cook died Sunday, May 4, of a blood infection caused by a bacterium that sometimes leads to meningitis. The 41-year-old taught at Gunston five years, the last two spent supervising the Solution Shop, a program of his own design helping students who needed extra academic support.
It was a class that made a real difference, Dixon said. ?He would bring in stuff for us to make class more interesting,? she said. ?He was just like an alternative for us.?
COOK?S DEATH CAME suddenly, and public health officials began investigating early the next morning. Monday was a difficult day at school, as no one knew the cause of death. Principal Greg Croghan sent a letter home to parents informing them of Cook?s death and of public health officials? involvement.
By Tuesday afternoon, Croghan had all the details to send home to assure parents that their children were safe. ?My first reaction when I heard it was extreme sadness,? said Eva Marie Carney, whose daughter is a Gunston eighth grader.
That was a common reaction, Croghan said. School counselors were available to help students deal with grief throughout the week. Teachers leaned on each other for support.
?That?s the best thing you can do right now is continue,? said Croghan. ?They?re doing a great job of it, but it?s certainly not an easy job.?
About 50 parents came to Gunston for a PTA meeting Tuesday, May 6, to get information from public health officials about their children?s safety. But even as they worried about safety, parents still understood the tragedy behind it. ?This is really hard on the teachers,? said Donna Wiedeman.
?He was very well-respected in the community,? said Mary Callow.
STUDENTS IN COOK?S classes cleaned out the Gunston trophy case last week and filled it with items important to their teacher, building a shrine of remembrance.
School staff posted newsprint in the cafeteria so students could write about Cook during lunch. They will roll that paper up and mail it to Cook?s father, brothers and sisters, Croghan said, ?so they can see how much he meant to the kids.?
Cook was born in Shreveport, La., where he was buried Saturday, May 10. He lived in Shirlington and had no family in the area.
Students conducted their own remembrances, guided by Gunston faculty. Croghan encouraged students to use memories of Cook to help them stay on track during the difficult time. ?So his strength kind of carries on,? said Croghan.
Dixon recalled how she found out about Cook?s death. ?My friends were all crying,? she said. ?For me to come to school to hear this, it?s just like not sinking in at all. I?m just acting regular like it?s not bothering me, but I know it will eventually.?
Gunston staff will hold a memorial ceremony and dinner in Cook?s honor Tuesday, May 20 and have organized the Jonathan Cook Scholarship Fund as well.