Occasionally a television show elevates the label of “reality” because, instead of showcasing bachelorettes mewling feminism back fifty years, it has a real purpose. Sundance’s “Dream School” is one such show, which wrapped up its second season this year. I was so moved by student Scout Cook’s spoken word performance about an abusive relationship — and how she seemed to find catharsis through art — that I reached out to interview her.
“Dream School” gives students who have had difficulty in regular school for various reasons the opportunity of a lifetime to study with Chuck D, David Chang, Johnny Weir, and Gloria Allred, to name a few. Cook had intense anxiety that prompted her dropping out from high school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
I ask Cook how the overall experience of being on “Dream School” was. “My best friend’s mom saw some information for the interviews they were holding to find students that fit the mold for the show and, knowing my story, sent it my mom’s way,” she says. “I didn’t want to do it for a little bit, I was kind of scared of opening up and I was scared that I’d quit early and look idiotic on national television, but I ended up doing it because I wanted to share my story and let others know that they weren’t alone. I try not to think of the experience as the aired footage, because that’s just the product of what happened and it doesn’t tell the whole truth, or even show the best times. I loved being on Dream School and I miss it so much! It was a lot of ‘hurry up and wait,’ but everyone working on the show was awesome, and even if the food was bad, we all had to power through it together. There was also a lack of the toxicity of normal high school environments. No one there was going to judge you for the things we opened up about to each other. It was safe. I miss that community and environment (and free food).”
Cook is nineteen and has grounded plans: “At the moment,” she says, “I’m trying to focus on both self-producing my music and getting into community college upstate. I need to get away from the toxicity of the city and how triggering it can be for me so I can grow a bit more as a person and an artist.”
“I’ve started meeting all kinds of people who are incredibly kind and supportive of me just because I’m telling my story,” Cook says. “I try to do the same, because everyone deserves a friend who believes in them when they feel hopeless.”
As someone who’s also had anxiety and fights it to be an artist and express myself in the world I was compelled to reach out to Cook. I ask her to tell me a bit about that process of writing/performing the spoken word piece that inspired me to interview her.
"When we first got to The Collective (where we wrote our poems), Malcolm [Wicks] performed a few of his pieces for us," Cook says. "After his piece about education, they asked us to take a part of his spoken word and flow off of it on our own. They gave us some time to do it, but as soon as they gave us the assignment, I already knew that I was going to take his line about being viewed as broken and work off of that. There are some moments in a flow of creativity when you can just continuously write everything in a way that comes out perfectly and flows beautifully, and that spoken word was just one of those moments. At that point, I had only really recently begun to be so open about my experience, and opening up to this room of total strangers was kind of cathartic. Performing it at the poetry slam in front of my parents and boyfriend was way scarier than performing it in front of the other students, though. They knew the story and understood the references I made in my piece, so it was really opening up to them about what it felt like, even 2 years after."
I ask if she feels like that performance paved the way for more creativity and art to flow.
"I feel like Dream School in general did that for me," says Cook. "I was writing just as much before, but 'Dream School' gave me the opportunity to thrive in an environment that promoted me following my dreams and being who I wanted to be without restraints."
I ask Cook about her SoundCloud page, where she posts her music, and if she is still writing and performing and if she has plans to continue in the future.
"I never stop writing!!" she says. "I went through a writers block for a few months, but have still forced myself to write at least one piece of poetry or at least one song a day, even if I think it’s terrible. I want to be able to write my entire life, and perform my creations so that I can communicate and connect with other people. As for my SoundCloud, I’m actually about to delete my original page and start up a new one under “real-wastedyouth” (since that’s what I feel like when I dig deep and get to the place where I write the pieces I’m proud of)."
I know as a fellow creative woman who has had a few bad relationships being treated well has become more and more of a priority as I’ve gotten older. I read somewhere that the abusive guy with whom Cook had the relationship about which she wrote the performance piece was trying to say she was slandering him by speaking about her experience. This is another reason I wanted to interview her — it sounds so familiar. I ask if she knows that’s BS and what that experience was like.
"I know it’s TOTAL B.S.," she says. "The story to that is actually that he and I had a mutual friend (that he was much closer with than I was) who passed away at the end of September. He hit me up asking if he could call me, I felt bad and said yes because I knew what he was going through, even though it probably wasn’t the best idea for me. He ended up apologizing, really apologizing, for the first time. Owning up to how terrible he was to me, sounding genuine in his guilt, in the way that I’d always wanted him to. He followed it up by asking if I 'slandered his name or ruined his reputation' any more than I already had, totally invalidating his apology because he really only cared about me not being upset at him and saving his own ass. In December, he called me and went off at me (and then had his girlfriend go off at me via text message) for talking about him on the show. I have to kind of remind myself daily that he can’t hurt me anymore and that the more I talk about it, the less power he holds over me and the weaker he is as a person because more people will know about what he did and how he’s dealing with it."
I tell Cook that I read that Adele’s ex wanted her to pay him royalties because so many of her songs were written about the pain of their breakup.
"I heard about that! Terrible people usually continue being terrible, so I try to distance myself from them as much as possible," she says.
Cook's “Dream School” valedictorian speech was great. But unfortunately they cut it from the show, however. I wonder if that still stings?
"I was so upset about that!!! I’m not angry or salty about it, and I was never REALLY hurt by it, but I was a little bit bummed that I worked really hard on the show and they didn’t show a lot of it. Especially because my speech was LITERALLY made-for-TV."
I ask her what she got out of doing "Dream School."
"I got a lot of motivation out of it," she says. "'Dream School' helped me stop doing nothing at home all day, too anxious to go out and see the real world. They gave me hope and faith in myself, that I could do anything, especially with their support. They gave me an AMAZING mentor (John-Michael Parker of the band Great Caesar), whom I love and whose music inspires me to no end. They gave me a group of friends that I know I’ll be close with for years, if not for life. They reminded me how smart I am and how talented I am and that I did the right thing when I told my guidance counselors about my abuser, even if I ended up dropping out because of it."
I ask Cook about her plans for the future.
"I’ve got most of it figured out in theory," she says, "but the main goal is to become some sort of rockstar and also have three really cute kids. For the immediate future? Get into a comm college and get my home studio set up."
Her current creative obsession is "Listening to indie instrumentals on Spotify and writing lyrics to them. When I’m my most blocked, that helps out a lot," Cook says.
She adds: “I feel like I always need to promote feminism whenever I can, so yeah! Feminism is great and needs to stop being demonized. Also a note to anyone reading this — Love yourself. You’re a beautiful human vessel and you deserve love.
Mother’s Day is not always the easiest for those of us who have lost our moms. No matter how OK I think I am I always miss her on this Sunday in May. But then I start thinking about how she would want me to be. Continuing to cultivate and honor my gentle side is a good start. Anyone who knew my Mom could see her unique gentleness and loved to be near it.
I always try to do something in tribute on anniversaries and holidays. These moments end up being some of the most spiritual cornerstones of my life. It’s crazy the way the universe seems to conspire to bring you absolute gold when you’re honoring someone.
On the tenth anniversary of my mother’s passing I took a reiki training workshop with Libby Barnett (who is amazing) and absolutely fell in love with this healing modality. It continues to further connect me with compassion and a softness of spirit that my mother definitely embodied.
At one point during our reiki training I was working with these two blonde mommies (that’s how I referred to them after, because of course that’s who I ended up with). They were also both nurses. One of them was skeptical of reiki, even though she had heard there was proof it helps patients pre and post-op and her hospital was paying for her to take the workshop. She had her hands on my shoulders during our session.
“I saw you!” she said, after the session, with tears in her eyes. “I saw you running through wildflowers and you had one of those ribbons on a stick! You know what I’m talking about?”
“Yes! I was totally obsessed with that ribbon on a stick,” I told her. “It came in the ‘Get In Shape, Girl’ toy pack. It was my favorite dance accessory.”
And she told me that she felt the intense love my mother felt for me, in that moment when I was little, now, and always. That she could feel that love, too, and all three of us felt it in that moment and wiped away those gratitude tears. It was the hugest gift.
Of course, three gals who were strangers with their hands on each other — sounds weird, right? But it wasn’t that weird. Another reason I had chosen to take this reiki training was that when my Mom died I had barely touched her at all because I had a cold that week and was afraid I would make her more ill. That, in retrospect, is way weirder than sharing the energy of our hands in a carpeted room in Watertown, Massachusetts. Ok, it’s sort of weirder. But you know what I mean.
My point is I really regretted not putting warm hands on my Mom as she was going through that last phase of her life. But reiki training turned that around. (And I love putting reiki energy into everything I do, like my perfumes, music, food, etc.). Sometimes it takes something you could consider unorthodox, just to stretch yourself a little, for the universe to spark up in all its wild majestic weirdness and meet you.
Last summer I went on the most lovely women’s summer solstice retreat on Nantucket that started on my Mom’s birthday. I don’t consider myself to be super comfortable with strangers so that was out of my comfort zone, too. And it ended up being life-changing. It moved me out of this overly-analytical brain into my heart center and I’m looking forward to going on that retreat again this year.
Tribute can be anything. Sing a song. Do something nice for someone in the name of a loved one. Stretch your heart a little. You don’t have to go put your hands on blonde strangers. But if that sends a frisson up your spine, by all means, you magnificent weirdo. We’re human, after all, and it’s all pretty strange.
And then here are some others things that happened/are happening...
Every time I fly on an airplane and drink something out of one of those plastic cups I think of an old college crush from almost 20 years ago.
He had a long-distance girlfriend and so nothing ever happened between us. The closest we ever came to any contact was goth dancing at ManRay in Cambridge, Mass., and occasionally resting our chins on our arms while looking out someone’s apartment window, making up nicknames for the different cab companies based on the font of the writing on their doors.
“Barbie cab” was the old Boston Cab Company because the near-script swirl of the “B” reminded us of the ebullient “Barbie” swirled on the outside of the ubiquitous pink boxes. We’d name the cabs as we saw them, create scads of inside jokes, and let the electricity pass between our touching arm chairs.
We sent handwritten letters with ant stickers back and forth over several summers. I can still picture his handwriting — as neat and perfect as his Pez candy dispenser collection, all in their original packaging, and his CDs in alphabetical order behind spotless glass. The way he kept his music collection was quite different from mine, as half of my CDs had red candle wax accidentally blown across them from late-night listens.
By the time he was single and interested in me I was not into him that way anymore. We went to see The Cure together after he drove all the way from Pennsylvania and there was subtext to the visit because of his singleness but he was always naturally tacit and I over-talked about everything but the thing we probably should have discussed. And one of the worst things I did when I was younger was being friends with young men but doing date-like things with them.
That summer he worked the overnight shift at a plastic cup factory on the part of the assembly line responsible for the rounded plastic lip on the cups you drink out of on an airplane. And from then until now every time I have a drink from a plastic airline cup I think of him and how it was the closest my lips ever came to his. And it’s not a complaint in the least. It makes sense, actually, and is better this way. The friendship we shared during several freezing Boston winters, the fact that he looked like a skinhead in his leather jacket and army boots, and his gentlemanliness were all instrumental in a certain inner warmth during a time that I was very naive and would have been walking alone if not with him, late at night, in a short skirt, after a bad choice of Amaretto sours or similar. He helped keep me safe and made me feel cared for.
So now when I sip from those cups I think of that guy from Drums, Pa., who treated me so respectfully. I was lucky and get to write about this because I forged a true friendship.
Jenn Sutkowski is waxing only mildly nostalgic because the best (and worst) thing about being older is being older. Find her aging but not Miss Havisham-ing (though she may be wearing crystal point necklaces like old times) at www.jennsutkowski.com.
This Full Frontal column was first published in the Newport Mercury.
It's me, Jennifer Bernice (rhymes with "Furnace": it was my Granny's name) Sutkowski
• More details about my writing here.