Principal Akbar Cook of West Side High in Newark, NJ is on a roll. Last year, he installed five washing machines and dryers in his school as a way to deal with faulty attendance – and it worked; and got him national and international attention, including two stints on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Last week, Oprah came to visit West Side High to support Principal Cook’s “Lights On” program, which he started in 2016 to give kids a fun and safe place at school to hang out on Friday nights – with video games, an open gym and a hot meal – to keep them away from the drugs, gangs and violence that was impacting his ‘babies’, as he calls his students. Oprah was impressed, and gave him $500,000 for the program.
I spoke to Principal Cook several weeks ago to learn more about his personal story – and as we chatted it was clear his work is motivated by wisdom inspired by his elders.
“Taking care of the underprivileged is in my DNA,” Cook tells me. “I always had a huge support system, of mostly women, and their nurturing and caring spirit is just ingrained in me.” His grandmother was a foster parent for many disadvantaged youth; she and his aunts adopted several of the kids, and they’re Cook’s cousins.
Cook’s aunts were educators and encouraged him to go into teaching and to get a graduate degree in administration. But Cook regrets that he didn’t take college seriously, do as well as he could have, or use his opportunities wisely. He felt he let his aunts down, and it was only after they both passed away that he got more serious.
“I think that’s where a lot of my drive comes from. I squandered the opportunity to show these two women who I love dearly the man that I could be,” he tells me. “So everything that I’ve done since then has been just to let them know that I miss them dearly, and they were right, that I was going to be a major educator and administrator. I want my grandmother and my mother to smell these roses while they’re here, and I go hard for them – this is the legacy I want to leave behind.”
Cook says his babies are depending on him too. “For these kids, I am their only hope in many cases. If I slack, they slack. And that may end up resulting in me losing another kid’s life. I can’t lose in the game of life.”
For Cook, this is personal. “I let my family down while I was in college, and when I first started teaching. I’m not going to let anyone down from here on out,” Cook says. “I refuse to be the weakest link for these babies.”
And for Cook, family is everything. For him, it stands for, ‘forget about me, I love you’.
Day 15 Wisdom 15: Don’t let people you love down (and if you do, make it up).
photo: from Akbar Cook’s Instagram.
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