Sean Cook’s grade 11 students were staring at the Coke machine in the hallway when one suddenly shouted out, “I see a naked woman!” After several students wrote about it in their next class essay, Cook, their English teacher, decided naked women on a Coke machine were worth speaking out about - it was the subliminal messaging part that bothered him. He consulted with school administration and the students’ parents, then helped the students write a media release. The story ended up on the cover of the Vancouver Sun.
Since then, Cook has completed an MA on the effect of corporate sponsorship on schools, given workshops, run the UBC water fountain protest, and written School Inc, which opens in Vancouver at the Roundhouse on April 27th.
Cook is an activist who seeks the stage. But a humble one, he stresses. “We like our heroes to be flawed,” he says. “It’s about shared humanity.” Cook doesn’t feel the need to be perfect or to have the answers to the issues he raises.
Naturally then, one of his heroes is... Simone de Bolivar? Cook will tell you the Latin American hero of liberation was a rich colonialist with a gold trading interest in the Caribbean. De Bolivar’s parents died when he was young, and when he was 17 his tutor took him to Spain, where he saw Napoleon’s coronation, met the King, then fell in love with his future wife. Within months of marrying and taking her home, she died. After that, he gave up his gold trading interests and spent the rest of his life trying to liberate South America, hence his namesake, Bolivia.
“There’s a notion that when you lose hope, you also lose all fear. Then when you lose fear, you discover the ability to do something you wouldn’t do before,” says Cook.
His voice goes quiet as he talks about how several years ago, his own marriage dissolved, and his ex-partner and daughter moved to Ontario. “There’s a certain wisdom that comes with those moments of transition. So I lost the fear of consequence of doing something politically contentious with a work of art.” Cook says it was after that that he became more active into his own liberation project.
Truth and beauty
For his MA thesis, Cook wrote School Inc. And true to his heroic inspiration in de Bolivar and his grounding in French drama from his BA, in the play, the characters are both well-intentioned and flawed.
“Every character is pursuing their version of truth and what is best for children in schools. I’ve experienced that at all levels of the education system - everyone really has the best interests of students at heart. I mean, corporate sponsorships have the potential to really diminish the quality of education I offer - but they’re done through best intentions. As Shaw says, ‘It’s what men and women do despite their best intentions and because of them that interests us. We’re not concerned with villains.’”
For Cook, the theme of corporate sponsorship is an important but minor element of his play. “Art has the element of hope. If it’s done well, it’s an expression of beauty... Look at the great plays of all time - ‘The Crucible’, ‘St. Joan’, ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ - they’re profoundly political but they transcend this. It’s impossible to deny the beauty of the piece.”
Cook doesn’t present any answers in the play, nor does he have any. “If you can use the story to arouse emotions and shift values underlying the politics, then the solutions that seem to difficult now, become so much more apparent. That’s what I want – just to start a different kind of dialogue.”
But the Coke machine incident that sparked his interest showed him that “there’s a tension in teaching that determines the type of dialogue he can start and the role he can play within it. The teacher has to simultaneously be a spokesperson for the state’s values and also articulate his or her own truth. There’s a balance there that needs to be respected. One of the lines in the play is that you can’t have a teacher going to the media every time he has a bee in his bonnet.”
He frowns. “That being said, when the teacher has a legitimate concern that doesn’t coincide with the state or school district, to whom is he responsible: himself, the district, the state? And how does he act morally?”
‘Schools adopting values of corporations’
Cook dedicates the play to his daughter, whose existence sharpens for him such moral questions. “A decade or two ago, we restricted soft drinks for children. But now, we can justify encouraging it because we need the money. And then this process can restrict the way we think and the way we speak. It’s hard to speak out against a corporation when you’re reliant on their contribution. Education used to be about the student, promoting critical thinking, encouraging social and professional responsibility - now it’s about the bottom line. In short, schools are adopting the values of corporations.”
He acknowledges the contradictions. “It’s a difficult dilemma - and one we explore in the play. If one sponsorship can save a program, what do we do? But if selling off children’s minds isn’t the worst thing we can do, what is? There’s no quick fix.”
I ask if this means we should raise taxes to pay more for education. “When things are important, we find the money. Despite different churches’ financial problems, none have proposed advertising - and is there an institution in Canada more sacred than public education? And we can find a billion dollars for 12 days of winter fun because we value it. I mean, I don’t propose policy. I just suggest we get together to discuss the issues.”
Cook has found the process “humbling in a positive way.” He’s met Kalle Lassen, Joel Bakan, Mark Akbar and other big names critical of the power corporations wield today. And he says of his work, “At my best, I felt like I was just a kind of medium. It’s cliché, but in rehearsals, they’re acting out a story always meant to be told. I’m just the word guy.”
INFO: Tickets to School Inc. are available through Festival Box Office. The play runs at Vancouver Roundhouse Community Centre from tonight, April 26, through May 3 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 1 pm. Tickets are $20 adult, $12 student.
On Saturday April 30 a public forum at The Roundhouse will address Commercialism in Schools. Panelists will include Joel Bakan (author and filmmaker, The Corporation), Sean Cook (social activist, playwright, School Inc.), Larry Kuehn (Director of Research and Technology, British Columbia Teachers' Federation), Kevin Millsip (Vancouver School Board Trustee, Director of Check Your Head: The Youth Global Education Network), Kathleen Thomson (President of the Coquitlam Teachers' Association, Executive-Member of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation).
Vanessa Richmond focuses on culture for The Tyee.