Student Kori Criswell and mentor Tahnee Cook

"She's been lifesaving"

Content note: The following article contains references to suicide and mental health.

A once-bare classroom wall shines with vibrant colors and imagery of a coral reef.

Bright blue water, a green turtle, and purple corals help make up an underwater ecosystem that came to life because of the artistic talent of Kori Criswell.

Kori, a senior at Bear Lake High School in Montpelier, Idaho, painted the wall as part of a class project. But the finished product represents more than a typical assignment.

In many ways, the colorful piece of art is an homage to the one person at school who helped Kori come out of her own proverbial shell and shine: her mentor, Tahnee Cook.

“She’s been lifesaving,” Kori said.

“Without her, I can guarantee I wouldn’t be who I am today.”

For the past three years, Cook has been a dedicated mentor for Kori. The science teacher and student meet weekly to discuss all aspects of Kori’s life, including her academic and personal goals. More than anything, Cook has served as a consistent and meaningful presence for Kori, who lost her best friend to suicide when Kori was a freshman.

“Finding that person you can trust is really important because they’re able to really show you that there’s more to life beyond one bad experience,” Kori said. “Mentoring helps give us a completely different perspective and that helps get you through the tough times. Sometimes you can get stuck with only your point of view and she really helped me truly process what I was going through.”

Student Kori Criswell and mentor Tahnee Cook
Kori and her mentor, Tahnee Cook.

At Bear Lake High School, every student has a dedicated mentor as part of the mentoring component of the Summit Learning program. The mentors stay with their mentees throughout their high school experience, allowing for meaningful bonds to form. Kori then took it one step further by highlighting nearly 40 of these mentor-mentee pairs with first-person accounts for a Staff Appreciation story on Bear Lake’s website.

As he read through Kori’s work and scrolled through the photos, Bear Lake Principal Luke Kelsey beamed like a proud father.

“That was amazing and really made me emotional, to be honest,” Kelsey said. “You go through the daily routine of mentoring at our school and you think we’re making a difference, but you never really know. But then to see all of the genuine reflections from the students about their mentors was just a really big lift for us all.

“It’s not always easy, but through people like Kori, we see first-hand that this work is worth it.”

As she prepares for her upcoming high school graduation, Kori Criswell continues to reflect on the powerful impact that mentoring has had on her life. In her own words below, Kori explains why Tahnee Cook has been “the biggest influence” in her life.

At Bear Lake High School, we have a mentor program that has brought one of my best friends into my life. I am so blessed to have Mrs. Cook because if it wasn’t for her, I might not be here right now, let alone be the person that I have become.

My freshman year, I lost my best friend to suicide. As you can imagine, this sent me into a downward spiral of depression and anxiety. I got to the point where my only goal was to simply make it to the next day. But with Mrs. Cook’s guidance and kind words, I now have bigger goals for my life and future.

Through our mentoring sessions I have learned who I truly am and the person that I am striving to become. This was not a mindset that was easy to find, and it all started with the tiniest of steps.

One day, Mrs. Cook and I were having a check-in at a time when I was at one of my lowest points. This was a very hard day where I was in the mindset that I didn’t deserve to feel happiness and that I would never find it again. I thought I should feel guilty because if I was happy without my best friend here, then that was wrong and I would be hurting her further. I finally opened up to Mrs. Cook about this. She listened, and then responded, “Kori, you deserve to be happy and feel love. (She) wants you to be happy and continue to live life. There are so many people that need you here.”

From this moment on, my life has been forever changed. Yes, it was still a struggle to continue on but I have come to find true happiness through everyday talks with Mrs. Cook. Also, Mrs. Cook helped me by offering small actions that I could take each day, such as writing down three things I was grateful for every night. Through the smallest and what could be considered the silliest of things, Mrs. Cook has been the biggest influence in my life.

She has helped me come out of the deepest, darkest valley I have ever been in. She has helped me to be able to find the good in everything, and to be open to experiencing true happiness every day. As American historian, Alice Morse Earle, once wrote, “Every day may not be good, but there is something good every day.”

Even though today may be hard, strive to find the good in it and focus on the little things in life. One of the most important things is to surround yourself with people like Mrs. Cook who will help you find the good in each day, and get you through to the next day.