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Principal Faces His Fears to Fuel Student Reading

Education: Alan Cook has eaten bugs, wrestled snakes and spent a day in a cherry picker, all because his students meet massive reading goals each school year.


ORANGEVALE, Calif. — One day each spring, Alan Cook doffs the customary coat and tie of an elementary school principal and turns into a pratfall performance artist for his student body.

In the stunt department, Monty Python had nothing on this educator. Over the years, Cook has been covered with snakes. He has gulped down a five-course meal of bugs. He even overcame a soaring anxiety of heights, going aloft for a whole day in a utility cherry picker.

This isn't another episode of "Fear Factor." It's all about reading.

The stunts are Cook's way of paying off a bet he makes each year with students at Green Oaks Fundamental Elementary School in this suburb of Sacramento County. The principal challenges the students to collectively crack books of their own choosing. Lots of books. The goal is to get them to learn the pleasure of the printed word, but the page-turning target is lofty: This year the students were asked to pore through 1.5 million pages over a six-month span. That's about 3,400 per pupil.

When his 440 students win the annual bet, as they invariably do, Cook offers a delicious dose of adult humiliation, the sort of live theater kids love best.

He isn't the only educator in America to use this motivational tactic. Just a few days ago, another principal in the district got dunked in a vat of mud after losing a reading bet.

But few have been doing it as long or as good-naturedly as Cook. His stunts take weeks to plan and are presented with the pomp and zeal of a Bob Hope road show. Cleanup typically involves more than a quick shower and change of clothes.

Just a week ago, he took a bath in 4,400 rotten eggs.

After entering the school grounds in a cart towed by a skittish pony ("They had to keep me from jumping out," Cook recalls), the principal was treated to a facial of eggs and avocado, then had his hair glopped with whipped egg whites.

Egg jokes were told, egg songs sung, egg poems read. Egg puns ("the yolk's on Mr. Cook!") were on most every tongue. The principal even did a little chicken jig, leading the students in the dance.

Finally he was taken outside. With pluck and ceremony, Cook pulled on a snorkel and mask. Swim trunks on, he plunged feet-first into a glass display case filled with past-their-prime eggs donated by supermarkets.

Cook lasted about a minute in the vat of goop. Kids howled with laughter. Afterward, a crew from the local firehouse hosed him down.

Though students since the dawn of learning have lived to play practical jokes on teachers, "getting the principal is the most fun," observed Cook, 57, and married with two grown children of his own.

He said that being on the losing end is always worth it. Test scores for reading among third-graders at the school have risen steadily, from 71% in 1996-97 to 83% last year, though Cook warns "it's hard to pinpoint" how much can be attributed to his annual bet with the student body.

Aside from reading a ton, students also adopt the much-anticipated stunt as the theme for the school year. The bug year they studied bugs. This year they learned about birds and eggs. In the upper grades, they calculated how many eggs it would take to adequately douse the principal.

"You can't build school spirit in a better way," Cook said, "as icky as it can be for me."

To meet Alan Cook for five minutes is to know that this is a guy who can take a joke.

Just completing his sixth year at Green Oaks, Cook wanders the campus each day with wry smile and twinkling eyes behind wire-rim glasses and a close-cropped, salty beard.

He knows most kids by name. Last week he had a year-end lunch with some third-graders, who won the honor with enough good deeds to earn a wad of "Beaver Bucks," named for the school mascot.

Cook, who served in Ethiopia with the Peace Corps and has been an educator for 35 years, is regarded on campus as approachable, a good listener, a steady hand--a man of substance who just happens to be best known for his annual stunts.

"He's just great," said Nena Wilson, a computer technician at the school and chief tactician for Cook's merciless annual daredevil routine. "He has great rapport with everyone, and the best interests of the kids always in mind."

The stunts got rolling in the mid-1990s, when Cook was at an elementary school in Sacramento. A parent came up with the idea. When the students enthusiastically met their reading goal, Cook had to run an obstacle course in a hula skirt.

He carted the idea along to Green Oaks in 1996. The first year, bugs were on the menu. Cook figured that he might have to eat just a single beetle. Instead, Wilson and others queried a UC Davis entomologist and hunted for recipes. The result was a five-course meal served up on linen and crystal, with a gold lame "barf bucket" by Cook's side.

"It was gross," Cook said, recalling the crickets wrapped in bacon, the ground-up mealworms spread on toast like pate.

"I felt like using the bucket, but I couldn't in front of all those kids," he said.

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