March 25, 2014 at 8:45 AM ET
Some of us are lucky enough to have had a great teacher, a cheerleader who shapes our lives. Frank Cooper does more than shout: Like a poet, he wrote something that sticks. Years after they first heard it, former students of Charles Page High School in Sand Springs, Okla., can recite it word for word.
“K-Y-P,” Kelsey Morris said. “I remember it, even a dozen years out of high school. It means 'keep your promises.'”
The message of those three letters is so important to him, Morris had them tattooed on his wrist as a daily reminder to keep his promises. They left an indelible mark on his teacher, too.
“For a long time in my life,” Frank Cooper said, “I was a taker, a ‘what can you do for me' kind of guy.” He studied to be a lawyer, but two decades ago he left behind a lucrative legal career, taking a 50 percent pay cut, to teach high school.
Sometimes, when you climb the ladder of success, you find it’s been leaning against the wrong wall.
Frank’s wife, Mary, recalled: “Of course I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God: Going to work with a bunch of 14- and 15-year-olds has got to be worse than being in court yelling at somebody, right?”
Cooper called her after his first day in class. “Honey,” he said, “I might have made the wrong choice.”
So he tried a new approach: On Elvis Presley’s birthday, he showed up dressed like the King of Rock 'n' Roll. In Frank Cooper’s class, history comes alive.
“You got to get up in your Elvis power stance, man. Like this.” Frank leans back and plays air guitar for his class, the wig on his head resembling a frightened wolverine. “Kind of an athletic stance, like you’re wrestling.”
A boy pops up from his desk and mimics him. “Throw out your arms, 'cause the King’s like into karate and stuff,” Frank advises him. He pretends to grab the student. “Rip out your throat.” The kid grins.
“Now say in a deep Elvis voice: ‘Thank you... thank you very much.'”
“Thank you,” the boy croaks, “thank you very much.” His classmates roar. Nothing helps a teenager learn like laughter.
Yet with all this silliness, Frank is simply keeping a promise: the one he made at his father’s deathbed. “I promise you, Daddy,” he said, “the next time you see me, I’ll have done something to make you proud.”
Now Frank turns serious, standing in front of his students. “What has somebody done for you to make you feel a little bit more significant?" he asks. "We’re talking about kindness. Give people a sense of significance. Let them know they matter.”
So year after year, he scrawls "KYP," Keep Your Promise, on his classroom chalkboard — and sets out to do just that.
He persuaded Matt Wood, for example, to look beyond the football field and his family ranch. When he got into medical school, Matt called his old teacher first. In a few weeks, he will become a doctor.
“The work that Mr. Cooper started won’t ever end,” Matt said.
Another former student, Mandy Buntin, wants to be a teacher just like Mr. Cooper. “Are you in the book club?” she asks a young girl who read 11 books over winter break.
“Nah,” says the girl.
“You should get in there,” Mandy urges.
At times like this, Frank believes he sees his father. “And I think about him nodding his head.”
As Mandy Buntin's classroom begins to fill, I ask her: “Has it hit you that you are taking all these life lessons from an Elvis impersonator?”
Mandy laughs. “Well, let’s just say I hope Elvis never leaves the building.”
Oh, but he has. The best of him lives on in Frank Cooper's students.
“You guys are important,” Frank tells them as they head out of class. “I love you. Have a great day, and remember: The joy of life is...”
They all respond as one: “The journey.”