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Wise Words with OJ Cotes

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 this trancript of her May 1, 2010 “Wise Words in Troubled Times” she talks about hard work and honoring transitions.

  • My father’s name was Orpheus. He was Colville Indian from a family of 10. His grandfather was living with them and his name was Orpheus and the first son wasn’t named Orpheus and he was quite offended so my dad got the name Orpheus. When I came along, mother made up this name, Orphajean. I just recently noticed on my birth certificate it was two words. She sent me to school every year with a note that my name was Orphajean, one word, and I was never to be called Orpha. My initials came when I was working at the Shack Restaurant. We had three small kids and my husband was working days but we needed money, so I started working at the Shack Restaurant, which in those days was THE place in Spokane. A friend of mine from Rogers High School, his name was Ed Shaw, and he said there was a position as a cocktail waitress and he’d be glad to hire me. He said, “We can’t call you Orphajean. We’ll call you Jean.” Then pretty soon, he said, “We have someone else here named Jean. So you will be initials – OJ.” So I know where people connect me. To family, I’m Orphajean. From after my Shack days, I’m OJ. This was about 1962 or 1963, I was renamed. It’s been a fun name until my counterpart became infamous and then many uncomfortable reactions to the name. People expect me to be someone black and male. It’s one of those funny reactions.
  • I was born in Chewelah, Washington, and lived in Springdale until I was 4 and then we moved into Spokane. I went to Longfellow Elementary and Rogers High School. 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.

    I had a great school experience. One if the funny stories I tell about Rogers is this. I was so very connected to my father. My family hunted and fished on the Colville Reservation. Venison was part of our main diet in the winter. I learned to hunt from an early time with my father. When I went to Rogers, I joined the gun club. I did quite well. My dad was always proud of my awards. I was a pretty good shot. We did a lot of competitive shooting, my dad and I. 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 weekly practice sessions. So times had changed.

    I was going to be a journalist. I edited the annual there and the newspaper. Ultimately, I got a scholarship to Whitworth in journalism. At that time, the Spokesman had a student page, and I was the student writer, news reporter, for Rogers. They even gave us some money for the inches of writing we did. I graduated from Rogers in 1956.

  • My mom was from the Springdale area. She lived in Springdale with her grandmother. Her mother and stepfather were migrant workers until they stared a restaurant in Springdale. I was up on the reservation a lot. Dad was there either hunting of fishing and I always went. In his early days, he’d also gather firewood to sell during winters. He was a creative man to make every dime he could at those slim times. I just worshipped my dad. He was my greatest teacher. He was this incredible man that I so admired. I have a brother seven years younger. My mother had a hard time liking children. It was not a real loving relationship. She did the best she could. She told me I wasn’t an easy child and that’s probably true. I really just admired and went to that Indian culture inside.
  • In the last census 10 years ago, mother was still alive and so was my dad. My mom was a tiny lady, a little under 5 feet tall, and my dad was over 6-foot tall. My mother had early Alzheimer’s at that time and so I would help in the family. I would check on the paperwork and other things that needed to be done. So here on the kitchen table were the two Census documents. I read through mother’s, and all her dates were accurate. She had been an accountant bookkeeper and was meticulous with her figures. So hers was just fine. Then I looked at Dad’s and it labeled him as Caucasian. In our kitchen, it was evening, and there was a window right in front of the table. They were standing behind me so I could see a reflection. I thought, “Oh, dear, what do I do now?” I finally said, “Well Mom, Dad is Native American and we really need to mark down that he’s Native American.” She said, “No he isn’t.” I said, “Yes, Mom, he is Native American. Dad is enrolled. He has a number. He gets some money on occasion. And this is a federal document, and we have to do it right.” One thing I knew about mother, she did not ever want to break the law. I kept looking in the reflection in the window. She sat there for awhile. She put her hands on her hips. She turned around and looked up at my father and said, “Do you want to be called an Indian?” You could hear this sense of stress, distress, distaste. And I thought, “What is my dad going to do?” He never really stood up to my mother on very many occasions in their 60 years of marriage. He turned, looked down at her and said, “I really do.” She said, “All right!” and left the room. So I changed the document. It was one of those things she struggled with, as people do, with her own identity and culture.
  • Mother was the accountant and the bookkeeper, she watched every penny. She was so proud that she never lost a penny. My father (and mother) had a road construction business that they kept developing. The name of their company was O.C. Shaw Trucking. At one time he had a fleet of nine trucks and everywhere we’d go in the state of Washington, Dad would say, “We built this road and we were here.” He had bright yellow GMC trucks. She did all the bookkeeping. My dad was more of a risk-taker. One time he announced to her that he had just gone down to General Motors to order two or three new trucks. It was very quiet. She said, “Well, how much money did you say we’d put down?” He wrote $1,000 in the air. And she was just so stressed. But it was because he always pushed the financial end that they did so well financially. He worked tirelessly. What I saw growing up were two people who set no boundaries as far as work. If it took seven days a week – which it did in early times, and I missed him terribly because he would be repairing trucks on the weekends. I grew up knowing that hard work is what you are supposed to do. Mother just said, “You’re expected to get done what needs to be done. So do it.” She worked hard. He worked hard. And fortunately, they lived in a time when hard work really paid off. That’s not necessarily the standard now. They were in the right place at the right time, and dad took some risk that escalated into a very comfortable lifestyle.
  • My dad came from a family of 10, and he was the third in line from the oldest. I have an aunt that was six months older than I am. And then an uncle that was three years older and another aunt that was five years older and they were sort of other siblings to me. That generous caring for family was so prevalent in that family. My mother on the other hand didn’t like to borrow anything, didn’t like to lend anything. So there always a little bit of dissonance. She curbed a lot of the generosity. He became a Mason and went out and did all kinds of community engagement and involvement. As he created his final papers of how he wanted things given, there was so much of what the Indian people do with the giveaway. He had guns that he wanted to go to this person and that person. He wanted his church recognized. He wanted the Masonic people recognized. All of those things were carefully spilled out. After Mother left, he was able to be a little more generous, but it was also Mother’s frugalness that let them become as comfortable as they were.
  • I think 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 just realizing so much that the more I can give to people now, the more important. I had a ring that was my mother’s diamond, and I took my daughter’s ring, and my mother’s stone, and made a ring for my grandson. When my granddaughter was here recently, I took her into where my daughter’s jewelry was and said, “Go through that. Take the things you would wear.” I’m much more purposeful now that things move along. I don’t have a need for things now. I have plenty. I’m driving a ’91 Cadillac which was my mother’s last car. My middle son says, “It’s time you get rid of that piece of junk and get something new.” But it is really serving me well. I go out and look at it and think “This is a nice car.” It now has a bump on it that my other son put on it, but we got that fixed. I don’t know that I need a new car.
  • I came to Whitworth for the first year of college, and then I transferred to Eastern. And on May 15, 1958, I was expelled from Eastern for disciplinary reasons. I left home and partied and did the things that many people who have had a very strict upbringing and it was a conservative time. I really played and even received an “F” in introduction to art, because I was partying. My mother was mortified that such a thing would happen. Probably rightfully so. I was grounded in the backyard. She did not want the neighbors to know. She even went out to the university president and tried to make a petition on my behalf. My mother insisted I go back to school that summer. So I went back to school that summer and already during that year there, I had met my Richard, my to-be-husband. And we got married in December of 1958. By that time, I was going to school and working at Eastern State Hospital in the children’s area. I continued to go to school until that summer and then I had our first child at the end of September, 1959. I had about two years of school, give or take. I was out of school about three years. And then I went to work at the Shack Restaurant and went back to school at the same time at Eastern. I was also at the Manito Country Club, the Spokane Country Club and Madge’s Hedge House. I waitressed about six years, while going to school and raising my family. I loved being a waitress. I liked serving and working with people and I liked to do it well. To this day, it’s a great honor and a treat for me to serve others.
  • Madge at the Hedge House was an amazing woman. So meticulous about things. And so interesting. After I received my degree in 1965, I worked a year or two more, because I loved working as a waitress much more than teaching school. I liked night people better than I thought I liked day people. I did not feel successful (teaching), but I did waitressing. I could step in just about any place. I loved the woman at Madge’s. Cathy Boot was a great lady who cooked, an African American lady that I stayed in touch with forever. She would call me with the many foster children she had, if there was a problem. I’d go out and visit and we’d see what we could do for the children. She was such a great teacher. She came from Chicago. She would talk about her life and I would listen to her life. What did I learn from Madge? She wanted things done well. I’d remember she’d come in and if a cut of meat didn’t a high standard, it went back. Everything had to be of high quality. She demanded excellence. And her clothing. She bought designer clothing. I was seeing an aspect of life where she and her family had worked hard. Madge’s Hedge House at that time was THE place in town. It was where all the graduates went. Everything was meticulous. I learned you might scrimp some places but you do quality things. I was in awe. It was such a different world from my folks. I ran around there with my mouth open and learning from a nightlife world I had never seen.
  • I can feel, and I have had had times, when I’ve panicked about money and what we were going to do. I have had those times. Look inside yourself and see what you can do. And then look out and see who is out there you can talk to who can help you learn what you don’t know how to do. Who are the people? Where are the examples? Sometimes it’s in a book. Sometimes it’s a casual conversation that someone will give you another idea to help you start going. And you just have to keep going.
  • Am I known for demanding excellence and having high expectations as a teacher? I hope so. Also, hopefully, that I was caring and generous. I’m reading a book called “Drive” that talks about that whole sense of excellence. It’s always the next step. You are never at excellence. There is always something more you can do to even do it better. In some of my positions I’ve been criticized because I have made comments like that and people feel “we are really good at what we do and you should be satisfied.” I used to think that was a flaw that I couldn’t be satisfied. And I think sometimes my children and husband would say “Just sit down and leave it alone.” If it’s not done and done as best you can, then you get up and take care of it.
  • My daughter’s passing has been another learning for me. And there have been other times something hasn’t gone the way I would have liked it to go, or it seemed like a disaster. My dad provided me with a great learning. He had a disc that it was said was missing between two vertebras. He was frequently in a great deal of main. You would never know that. He worked all the time. He had to change some things. He couldn’t ride in the bumping trucks as much, but so what? You get past that, and you do what needs to be done. I saw that modeled. When his mother passed when she was 54, I saw the grief. I saw the longing. And how damaging it was. There was a time of grieving and then there was a time to step up and move on and get past it and do what you need to do, whatever that is. I have times when I am floundering and maybe not very resourceful. I say, “Get out of bed and accomplish something. You can’t sit here and stay in this state of feeling sorry for yourself.” I really have had a rich and wonderful life. I’m blessed with all kinds of things other people don’t have. How on Earth can I sit here and feel sorry for myself? Move it.
  • My grief over my daughter is pretty fresh. And that sometimes surprises me, because I have to think, when does it mellow out? It’s maybe again what my dad said. When you wake up each day, you have to make the very best use of it you can, because it’s the day you have. So right now there are several things in my life. There’s the passing of my daughter. And this is a time 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. And the word celebration has such different connotations to me, of joy and happiness. And I understand that some very religious people believe there is a passing and now everyone is in a better place. Well, I’m not there yet. So I have said this isn’t a time of celebration for me. It’s a time of reflection, a time of remembering. And a time of change. So I can deal with that, but it is not a time of celebration. For my daughter, we’re going to do a day for her soon. I want a stone out by my garden. What will I put on it? I don’t want to put “born and died.” Finally, I came up with just putting her name and flowers. I’m just going to put “Shannon” and her favorite flowers.
  • I don’t have a doctorate, and when I was hired, I was to be here three years. This is year nine. The current position has expired. I’m exploring several new opportunities. I’m not retiring. I love what I’m doing, but it will be something else.
  • I’ve been in the master’s in teaching program for nine years. When I was still in District 81 most of my last 15 years was in staff development working with teachers in the field. These are preparing to go into the field. These MITs have an undergraduate degree in a specialty. Many of them have already been in a career. They make a very purposeful commitment to do this. I think some of those coming straight out of the four-year here may be not as sure. But some have known from the time they were babies they wanted to teach. My granddaughter went through the MIT program. It was a real treat for me. What I find is the optimism and excitement and passion about teaching is as strong with these current people just entering a field that is so much tougher than when I started out. Students are much more independent They’ve been given more voice about what they want to do and what they don’t want to do. As adults, the community has been more cautious in holding young people accountable. They don’t want the children upset with them. And because of that, our young people flounder, because the adults are not clear about what is appropriate and not appropriate and setting clear and consistent boundaries.
  • Our students are so well-prepared and excited about what they can do to impact 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 that teaching. There’s no two ways about it. That’s what he wants to do. I brought in presenters who said, “This is a calling. This is truly a calling to give back and make a difference.” I see that in their papers. I see that when they write. I see strong words of empathy. Many times they were unaware of the poverty of others around them. They are seeing that and really stepping in and saying education may be the best answer for society and our children. We have great young people, and 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 and still, it’s a worthy debt. I remember a superintendent one time in a group I was part of. He was angry that they had to provide their beginning teachers with lunches or they would not have lunch because they couldn’t afford it. He said that should never be the case for teachers and yet our students are doing that. They are doing additional (jobs). Their families are supporting this calling and this vision and it’s pretty exciting.
  • It seems that most patterns have been cyclical. We soon put aside things that are uncomfortable. It was my mother’s and dad’s goal for the next generation to move beyond where they were. And so, if that’s what happens and then people again start providing all the goodies that make life easy for the children, then it seems like we’ll repeat the cycle. As parents ultimately, we want our children to have those opportunities we didn’t have. One great friend, Len Long, has long held his gifts and bounties not to tangible things but to the time he spends, the stories he reads. He’s a great model of frugalness. He does not need a lot of things. When their house burned, (his wife) Margo was out of town. Len brought the children to our house and he told them, “All right, you have this evening to grieve the loss of the things in our house. But we’re all fine. No one is hurt. It was just stuff. Tomorrow we move on.” He was firm about it. He held the kids to that. He is really able to separate what’s really important.
  • I ask myself: What’s really important today that I do for those around me and my family. What’s really important? Do I have an answer? I think it’s to be in the moment and value the moment with that person. Really value that moment. It’s sort of an Indian thing. People talk about Indian time. Indian people were 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.
  • As I’ve done some reflection, I think of the many opportunities I had that I did not plan for them to happen. When I was at Shaw Middle School as the art teacher, the principal wanted a mural outside. It was 5 feet high and 18 feet long. This was constructed in our art class. I had no idea how to do it. I just took it on and did it and learned from it. When I went to Sacajawea as the art teacher, the principal called me in and said, “I want a totem pole outside the window.” And I got a book up there and said, “OK, I guess I can do that.” My husband said, “What happens if you don’t get the totem pole done in time?” I remember saying, “I never thought of that.” It never crossed my mind to not do it, because I knew from my life, I will. “I can’t” is not in my thinking. It might be stressful but you get it done. My principal there said, “You’re going to go to these classes in the summer.” I thought I don’t want to go to classes. And I did. He came back and said, “I want you to do an administrative internship,” and again I thought I wasn’t planning to do that. I did. And then came another opportunity to go into staff development. I worked with the greatest educators ever. Some people have very clear plans and directions. And they know from the beginning of their life. I have never known that. I have stumbled into — and sometimes someone has extended a hand and pulled me into — great opportunities. I said yes. And I think that’s what I’d like people to do. Take some risks. And see what happens. And sometimes it can be the greatest thing that happens. Even when things don’t go so well, you still learn from it. I’ve learned from some harsh times, all the way from being removed from school and an evaluation one time that was so harsh. I learned from it. I’m a better person because of those things.