Thirteen years ago, at Greenbrier High School in Evans, Georgia, senior Mike Cameron's smart mouth got him in trouble.
What did he do? Did he talk about drugs and God, like that "Bong Hits For Jesus" kid? Oh, no. Mike did something far worse than promoting demon weed or disrespecting Christ: he risked offending Greenbrier High's corporate sponsor. Mike wore a Pepsi shirt on Coke Day. It earned him a suspension.
"I know it sounds bad — `Child suspended for wearing Pepsi shirt on Coke Day,'" said Gloria Hamilton, principal of Greenbrier High School in Evans, about 130 miles east of Atlanta, the world headquarters of Coca-Cola. `'It really would have been acceptable if it had just been in- house, but we had the regional president here and people flew in from Atlanta to do us the honor of being resource speakers. These students knew we had guests." Friday's Coke in Education Day was part of Greenbrier's effort to win a $500 local contest run by the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Augusta and a national contest with a $10,000 prize.
Gloria Hamilton — whom a person less couth than I might term a Coke whore — explained that Mike's behavior disrupted the school's mutually beneficial relationship with Coca-Cola, including its innovative curriculum:
In addition to the school picture, Greenbrier officials invited a Coke marketing executive to address economics students, had chemistry students analyze the sugar content of Coke and used a Coca-Cola cake recipe in home economics.
Later, students in math class learned how to calculate the amount of life insurance would be necessary to provide for their family if they died of diabetes.
Anyway, that was 13 years ago. We were barbarians. Surely modern educators have rejected the creeping attempts by various corporations to use schools as advertising platforms to captive audiences?
Well, maybe not. At Catawba Valley Community College, student Marc Bechtol was suspended and banned from campus for questioning the college's cozy relationship with a financial services company called Higher One. Marc didn't like how CVCC was hard-selling Higher One's cards and services, and didn't like how he became an immediate target of hard-sell marketing pitches for more products and services as soon as he signed up for one of the cards CVCC was pushing. He criticized the relationship on the school's Facebook page, engaging in some mild but obvious satire. It got him kicked out. Fortunately for him, FIRE is on the case, and CVCC president Garrett D. Hinshaw is looking at the sort of bad publicity that tends to make colleges (reluctantly) do the right thing.
Modern education is too much driven by money. It makes administrators do stupid things. Neither Coca-Cola nor financial services companies like Higher One has students best interest at heart. They are in it to make money, as they should be — that's their role. Should they be allowed to market? Sure. Should public schools act as their marketing arm? No. Should protecting their message from criticism be a legitimate goal of the schools? No.
CVCC leadership is about to get a short, sharp, embarrassing lesson. They deserve it.
Edited to add: Higher One's PR team is out and about on this topic.