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Embracing transition

Sat., May 1, 2010

Longtime educator OJ Cotes enjoys the nice day and the view from a peaceful bench on the Whitworth University campus.  (Christopher Anderson)
Longtime educator OJ Cotes enjoys the nice day and the view from a peaceful bench on the Whitworth University campus. (Christopher Anderson)

Life’s changes have been a series of learning experiences

OJ Cotes, an educator in Spokane since 1965, has spent the past decade at Whitworth University preparing teachers-to-be for the modern classroom.

She’s known for her high standards in the classroom. And for a gentle, reflective nature that she credits, in part, to her Native American heritage.

It’s a time of personal and professional transition for Cotes, 72. Her grown daughter, Shannon Renee Cotes Roloff, died unexpectedly in January. And Cotes will leave Whitworth at the end of the summer.

She was originally hired on a three-year contract that stretched to nine years. But she has no intentions of leaving the work world.

In a recent Wise Words interview, Cotes talked about the importance of hard work and honoring transition times.

•My father was a Colville Indian from a family of 10. I lived in Springdale until I was 4, and then we moved into Spokane. My mother was always very embarrassed we were from Springdale and that my father was Native American, so all I could ever tell people was that we were from “up North.”

•My family hunted and fished on the Colville Reservation. I learned to hunt with my father. So when I went to Rogers High School, I joined the gun club. Every week I took my .22 rifle to school. It was placed in my locker on the third floor. Then after school, we went for our practice sessions. So times have changed.

•My father had a road construction business. The name of their company was O.C. Shaw Trucking. Everywhere we’d go, Dad would say, “We built this road.” He had bright yellow GMC trucks. Mom did all the bookkeeping.

One time he announced that he had just ordered two or three new trucks. She said, “Well, how much money did you put down?” He wrote “$1,000” in the air. She was just so stressed. But because he always pushed the financial end, they did well.

He worked tirelessly. And mother always said to us: “You’re expected to get done what needs to be done.” Fortunately, they lived in a time when hard work really paid off. That’s not necessarily the case now.

•In the 1960s, I waitressed about six years, while going to school and raising my family. I waitressed at the Shack Restaurant, Manito Country Club, Spokane Country Club and Madge’s Hedge House, which at that time was the place in town.

Madge was meticulous. If a cut of meat didn’t meet a high standard, it went back. She demanded excellence. After I received my degree in 1965, I worked a year or two more, because at first I loved working as a waitress much more than teaching school.

•I had times when I panicked about money. At those times you look inside yourself and see what you can do. And then look out and see who is there to help you learn what you don’t know how to do. And you just keep going.

•Am I known for demanding excellence? I hope so. I’m reading a book called “Drive” that talks about excellence. There is always something more you can do. I used to think it was a flaw that I couldn’t be satisfied. But if it’s not done as best you can, then you get up and take care of it.

•There was a time when having possessions was more important to me. And now, especially with the passing of my daughter in January, I’m realizing that the more I can give to people now, the better.

•I’m driving a ’91 Cadillac which was my mother’s last car. My son says, “It’s time you get rid of that piece of junk and get something new.” But it is really serving me well.

•So right now there are several transitions in my life. There’s the passing of my daughter. And I’ll be leaving Whitworth for whatever I will do next. People start using the word “celebration.” Celebration of something called retirement, celebration of my daughter’s life.

The word celebration has connotations to me of joy and happiness. Well, I’m not there yet. It’s a time of reflection, a time of remembering, a time of change. But it is not a time of celebration.

•Our students are so excited about the future. I have seen a change in the nine years. Even though we’ve always talked about how teaching won’t make them independently wealthy, there are more conversations about service learning and how do I give back to my community?

One of my current young people was thinking of a legal profession. He comes from a family of lawyers. And that probably would be a more lucrative profession than teaching. But teaching is what he wants to do.

•We have great young people, but they are coming out of here with horrendous debt. That’s a sore point for me to have these people come out in such debt.

A superintendent one time was angry that they had to provide their beginning teachers with lunches, because the teachers couldn’t afford it. He said that should never be the case for teachers and yet our students are doing that.

•Some people have very clear plans and directions. And they know them from the beginning of their life. I have stumbled into great opportunities.

When I was at Shaw Middle School as art teacher, the principal wanted a mural outside. It was to be 5 feet high and 18 feet long. It was constructed in our art class. I had no idea how to do it. I just took it on and learned from it. I said yes.

That’s what I’d like young people to do. Take some risks. And see what happens.

•What’s really important? To be in the moment and really value that moment. It’s sort of an Indian thing. Indian people are really good about when I am here, this is where we are. They give people permission to value each other. I hope to do more of that.

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