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In dance, song, Paige Academy teacher is recalled

Dozens celebrate spirituality and determination of his life

Israel Cook played in a drum circle at Paige Academy in Roxbury at a memorial procession for his brother Ahmed (right).

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Israel Cook played in a drum circle at Paige Academy in Roxbury at a memorial procession for his brother Ahmed (right).

Walking behind drummers who filled the streets with a rolling, joyous mix of African rhythms, nearly 100 people whose lives Ahmed Cook had touched — his parents and siblings, friends, colleagues, and pupils — formed a processional from Paige Academy to First Church in Roxbury on Sunday to celebrate his life.

As a boy Mr. Cook was a motivation for his parents, Angela Paige Brooks-Cook and the Rev. Joe Cook, to found Paige Academy, a school in Roxbury for children up to age 12. As a pupil there, and then as an inspirational teacher of art, music, and kindergarten, Mr. Cook was entwined with the school since its founding in 1975.

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First diagnosed with cancer at 16, he lived to 42 and died May 25 in his Roxbury home, a couple of years after his illness returned. But the lessons of his life, from his music and paintings and pottery to his fierce determination to live, rippled outward far beyond the school and community.

“He belonged to the world,” his father said as the service began, acknowledging the wide range of Mr. Cook’s friends who filled the church, almost tripling the size of the procession, “and now the world is coming home to send him home.”

A video on the academy’s website shows Mr. Cook drumming with Paige Academy’s pupils last summer, one eye closed forever by treatment for brain cancer, the other open and watchful. Transported, he arches his head back one moment and glances forward the next to survey the children with the gaze of a musician who seemed both of this life and of the next.

“He was a different person when he was drumming. It livened up a part of him,” Iley Alexander of Dorchester, who formerly was one of Mr. Cook’s teaching colleagues at the academy in Roxbury and whose daughter was one of his pupils, said in an interview before the service. “When he drummed, he would bring Africa to you. His eyes would close, his head would go up, and that was it. He was in a different world when he drummed and he brought you with him.”

Sunday’s service celebrated Mr. Cook’s life with drumming and dancing, with singing and a saxophone medley of spirituals. His cousin Kimberly Cook of Atlanta performed interpretive dances, and one speaker encouraged the congregation to dance in the pews and aisles as the 1803 church was filled with the sound of Ziggy Marley’s “Love Is My Religion,” a phrase Mr. Cook embraced as a credo.

“Ahmed marched to the beat of his own drum,” his brother Israel, who lives outside Washington, D.C., said when his turn came to address the church, and so did the service.

“Ahmed will always be a part of everyone in this room,” his father said, “and you will tell his story.”

Ahmed Joe Cook was born in Cambridge in 1971 on Nov. 29, his mother’s birthday.

He was the oldest of four children and “from the time he was a little child he had an amazingly powerful spirit, very artistic, very creative,” Kim Archung of Summerville, S.C., a longtime family friend who was Mr. Cook’s first baby-sitter, said before the service. “He was full of love and joy and he carried that with him throughout his life. Even through this long and arduous battle with cancer he had an amazing spirit.”

Early on, she said, Mr. Cook announced that he would become a master drummer. He also took to art from the beginning, and years later when he returned to Paige Academy to teach, he brought with him his talents in music, painting, and pottery, his devotion to his African heritage, and his love of cultural diversity.

“He was always very super ambitious about art and bringing art into the community,” his sister, Paige of Jamaica Plain, said before the service.

“I think because of his illness at such an early age, he had a special zest for life,” said his aunt Maria Day-Marshall, who also lives just outside Washington, D.C., “and he appreciated every minute that he lived.”

That was apparent to all Mr. Cook encountered, not least the young children at Paige Academy, which was named for one of his ancestors, Lucy Paige Williams.

“I think that Brother Ahmed was a very good example of peace and happiness,” said 9-year-old Marley Isaacs, who is Alexander’s daughter and had been one of Mr. Cook’s pupils. “I loved the year that I was with him. He was an amazing person. He was always true about everything he felt, and I miss him very much and I hope that he rests in peace.”

Lamine Diallo, one of Mr. Cook’s teaching colleagues, said his pottery and paintings trail through the school’s rooms and hallways. A painting finished in the throes of illness was displayed at the front of the church Sunday, benevolently looking down at the speakers.

“You cannot go anywhere inside Paige Academy without seeing Ahmed’s work,” said Diallo, who added that “Ahmed liked to always give. He would do anything for the kids’ well-being and happiness. We will miss him.”

For seven years Mr. Cook was treated for cancer, into his early 20s, and he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in art and education from Fisk University in Nashville, which several of his relatives had attended.

Illness seemed certain to curtail his studies, but he was more determined to finish.

“He really always would not accept that the odds were against him,” Israel said before the service. “If you brought up ‘What would you want in your will?’ he wouldn’t address it. He would say, ‘I’m not going to die. Let’s talk about keeping me alive.’ ”

Returning to Boston after college, Mr. Cook taught at Paige Academy the rest of his life.

“Brother Ahmed was a very optimistic person and very honest,” Marley said. “He never gave up on anything. He was always the brighter side of everything. That’s what made me just love the art of drumming. Even when he’s not around with us now I still drum.”

Teaching and working with children at the school, “especially when he was teaching drumming and doing art with them, was like Ahmed’s calling,” Archung said. “His creativity, his patience with them, all came out so clearly. And he taught them a lot.”

As important to Mr. Cook as his music was religion. Denominations and practices were like the rhythms he mixed and made seamless.

African spiritual disciplines and Christianity, Judaism and Islam, Buddhism and Rastafarianism were all part of his spiritual path.

“He was open to picking out the best elements of many religions, and I think it was in an effort to seek truth,” his aunt said. “He could be in a mosque one day and be in a Christian church the next day. He was very universal in his acceptance, and again, I think that stems from his early bout with cancer.”

In addition to his parents, brother, sister, and aunt, Mr. Cook leaves another brother, Ashé of New York City.

Likening his brother to stars that “burn so bright they don’t last long,” Israel said in the church that “Paige Academy was Ahmed, and Ahmed was Paige Academy.”

“People say gifted spirits only come to us for a short time,” Archung said earlier in an interview, “and if that’s true, Ahmed was an example of that.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.
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