When life-long education is a goal, you grow your confidence and your opportunities.
“We’re going to talk about decision-making,” Elizabeth Cooke says as 25 pairs of Grade-6 eyes gaze up at her. As a criminal justice education programmer in Calgary, she gives in-school presentations to kids all over the city nearly every day. Her goal: to prevent crime—and to keep her young audiences from making the same destructive decisions she once did.
The students are just as taken by the 25-year-old’s warm, Nova Scotia-accented voice as they are by her appearance: the two sharp blond streaks that frame her dark brown locks, her tiny gold nose ring, two gold pendants, six rings, countless bracelets and the sparkly gem that’s been temporarily glued to her right incisor. A few might have even spotted a wrist tattoo—one of eight on her body—poking out of her left sleeve. The preteen crew, with their own funky fashion statements, feel they can relate to Elizabeth. And that makes her message even more powerful.
“This is your problem,” she says, drawing a small dot on the chalkboard, “and it requires a decision.” She asks them to imagine that a classmate has drawn a big black-marker line through a poster they’ve worked on for a week. They’d felt so proud of their creation: what would they do? “Do the same to their poster?” says a girl with long blond hair. “OK,” says Elizabeth, drawing a circle around the dot. “But this lands you both in the principal’s office.”
“Beat them up?” offers a boy in a black sweatshirt. Elizabeth smiles, a deep dimple appearing in her right cheek, and draws another circle. “That will also get you in trouble. And look how big your problem is now,” she says, pointing to the rings around the dot.
The students don’t know it, but Elizabeth’s own teen years in Halifax looked a lot like the layers of circles she’s drawn on the chalkboard. When she was in Grade 7—just a year older than these kids—she rebelled against her police officer dad and family-support worker mom by hanging out with a bad group of kids. First, she was using drugs, then selling them. Elizabeth’s parents had to search through her desk drawers and school bags. By age 14, she was running away from home; by 16, she’d left for good. “I was putting my home at risk,” she says. “My father’s job was at risk.”
Elizabeth’s anger soon morphed into violence and she got into fights. She was up on charges. She went to court. She was abused by a few boyfriends. Then, the circle around the first problem got even bigger: at 17, Elizabeth called her parents to tell them she was pregnant. “I just didn’t have what it takes to make that circle smaller,” she says.
But that was then. Today, Elizabeth is the proud single mom of six-year-old Montanna. She has rebuilt her relationship with her family and she’s a university graduate who’s pursuing her career in the criminal justice field. Helping youth, like the soon-to-be-teens in this class, has become her passion: “If I leave the classroom and I’ve prevented just one of them from committing a crime, I feel pretty good.”
No wonder Elizabeth’s mom, Norma Cooke, nominated her daughter as a Chatelaine Soul Model. Norma couldn’t be prouder. “It could have all turned out so differently,” she says of Elizabeth’s life. “Why didn’t it? Her determination has a lot to do with it. She could have said, ‘Poor me,’ but she didn’t.”