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Learning Curve

[Ed note: We were saddened to learn that our long-time correspondent, Bruce Brady, died on Wednesday, July 17th, at a care home in Oregon. Bruce taught English for many years at Laytonville High School. We remember him by printing an essay Bruce wrote in 2010.]

The social history of Laytonville High School is of interest to almost no one except (maybe) Beva. Beva, it is said, owns a copy of every yearbook that ever chronicled the exploits of a senior class at Laytonville High. Beva graduated in 1941 and went on to marry a redwood logger when he came back from the war, had two girls (who both died before they started school) and was the president of the Garden Club for years. At this point, Beva can’t hear and can barely move without hurting and so watches her snowy old TV without the sound as she forever, it seems, strokes Smokey, her cat, and takes little nips from her other constant friend, the bottle of Old Grand Dad tucked-in close to her hip.

The school Beva graduated from was new the year she tipped her tassel and stepped daintily down off the stage. These days it broods over its slow deterioration across from the junk yard and beside its low-slung replacement beyond the wire fence. With updated earnestness, the new school, like the old, and like most of its ilk, somehow suggests a medium security prison. The gym looms over everything, its cost presently a few thousand dollar a win, but this will doubtless drop over time.

On the whole, Laytonville High School remains an unlikely place for revolutionary change, and, indeed, none ever happened there. But happen it nearly did almost a generation ago.

To judge by the standard of the sheer amount of energy, emotion, and money expended, it would not be unreasonable for an outsider to conclude that the purpose of the contemporary public high school is to turn out kids who excel at sports, especially the traditional American sports of football, basketball, and, to a lesser extent, baseball, softball, soccer, track, and wrestling. When you add salaries and transportation to the requisite equipment and the necessary expenses of the needed facilities, the amount of money expended per student is startling: at Laytonville, it usually amounted to about twenty percent of all the money the high school ever had. But this extravagance just so Shelly can play shortstop and wear a uniform is not precisely the subject here: education and its purposes are. Besides, high school sports provide training for patriotism of the proper sort.

Looking down from a cloud (or whatever), God (or whatever) smiled kindly on Laytonville High School back in the nineties. Experience, desire, and blind luck contrived to bring a dozen or so teachers together with a principal of similar inclination, and the state legislature laid half-a-million dollars on their district to make education different. At Laytonville High School, things got very different. Folks with an eye to tie-dye strongly supported the changes, but all across the town, similar numbers of sphincters tightened in unison.

Glossing over the Wagnerian politics of it all, what Laytonville High decided to try was to bring all of its ‘services’ to bear by focus on our bioregion. The concept here was probably about as clear to the average person in Laytonville at the time as it may be to you as you read; it was certainly a slippery concept to the Laytonville School Board of the time, but the $500,000 from the state proved to be utterly irresistible. “Bioregion” is a term borrowed from the deep ecologists, and it is roughly equivalent to “watershed” with a social component comprised of a place’s history, economic development, biological and physical realities. It was a plateful, to be sure, but it was also a perfect fit for half or so of the staff; as for the other half . . . well, they were good at getting by, and most just hoped it would all go away. Which of course, it finally did.

Now that a good many of the trees are gone, Laytonville’s biggest export is, once again, its kids. Students graduating from Laytonville High have become Senate pages and college professors, fashion photographers and air force pilots; scattered across the United States, but mostly in the West, some are teachers, a few are lawyers, and one lovely young lady even does roller derby. Others have also, of course, become, or perhaps remained, meth-addled delinquents and vagrants, bumbling alcoholics, and exceptionally fertile breeders. Along with a few of their friends at least temporarily into looking picturesque, most of the latter group spend their young lives a few miles, at most, from home. This fact leads – ahem – to a certain ‘deterioration’, shall we say, in the ambient vibe. From what I can tell, this coarsening of the local experience is pretty general throughout the country and the world. It’s tough to point to anywhere that’s getting better, except (maybe) Fallujah or anywhere that Dick Cheney just left.

Bio-Core, as we called it, was designed to counter this seemingly inevitable deterioration by fostering a positive sense of place. Our plan was that, over time, students from Laytonville would come to value their home place rather than sneering at it as something in their pasts that had to be overcome and somehow explained, like a noticeable scar or a vanished parent. This would come to pass, as it were, by relating what was in the curriculum guides, as much as possible, to the local environment. Large historical themes, political and economic development, the basics of science and the English language: the whole of what a young person was expected to learn in the last decade of the twentieth century pretty much comprised what we were paid to deliver. The only exception to this was math – from simple arithmetic to calculus – which somehow existed apart from anywhere at all, mostly untouched by anything else. Other than math, what Laytonville’s young would learn in school would be drawn as much as possible from the place where they lived.

Until the cold rains came to Long Valley that fall, we learned our science by stringing grids on creekside lands a five-minute walk from the high school and surveying what grew there and learning why in one-on-ones with the wandering teacher, and then we moved inside and inspected it all and hashed over everything; we read Wallace Stegner and Thoreau; we visited Big Sur and Bishop and drove the Grapevine on our way to Diablo Canyon; if there were true justice in the world, the young lady who made the necessary political work and backscratching her Senior project would see her name on the new school. We copped an attitude. At national conferences we noticed that ‘We could do that.’ We attained minor national prominence. The high school was, in ways that hadn’t been true since the first schools were built for the whites newly-moved to the coastal valley, the spiritual and – increasingly – the political center of the community. The center of gravity clearly had shifted toward the high school and away from the comfortable laps of the plutocrats.

As I said, this process caused not a few of the traditional scions of the community to curse at their midnight ceiling, apparently foreshadowing the end of the world; as well, it scared the bejeezus out of a few on the school board of the time. What had begun as an afternoon of the usual pointless talk at another in-service meeting had morphed into what amounted to class warfare, pitting the old Indian-killer families, their descendants and admirers and more-or-less thoughtless followers, against a rabble of newcomers allied with the kinds of people who lived somehow (wink) in the hills and who were nothing like the good folks who graced the stores in town with their names and burned their brands into the hides of the cattle. Bucks – so-called – especially were prized as targets out on what, decades later, would become the football field. It was outrageous, but such was the real history of the home of the Warriors up to about the time that the world was being made safe for democracy.

Except eighty years later the bikers came through on the Harley run once a year and the hippies had their Pignic at the Hog Farm, a few miles north of town; sometimes the Harley run coincided with the rodeo – even today, this sometimes happens. As the end of the summer approached, the Rastafarians filled up the place on their way to Reggae on the River just across the county line into Humboldt. Meanwhile, the decrease in the spawning salmon was alarming the Natives and the fisherfolks as well as the tree-huggers and most of the families who lived in the hills; it also alarmed the staff at the high school, who made finding an answer to the question ‘What Happened to the Salmon?’ the center of all their efforts.

While we’re recalling all this, let’s not neglect that guy over there belly up to Boomer’s Bar, his butt-crack looming and still, at this time, able to light up a Marlboro inside the building; without question, he is as real here as Monroe, the last full-blooded Wailaki and a junior at the high school, there with the basketball under his arm, frozen in the doorway for a moment by a teacher’s question. Monroe and his basketball notwithstanding, to the guy at the bar we were batshit crazy, each and every one of us, students and teachers and parents and even the school board, for letting us all get away with it. What the hell was going on over there at the high school, anyway? It was better when all they did was play football and have bake sales.

Well, the dream that we tried to follow at Laytonville High died soon enough. The principal got fired and landed softly in Mendocino; the money sent by the state went mostly for computers and software; when the money ran out, travel budgets shrank again – no more trips to Albuquerque or Los Angeles or Tahoe; some folks retired and some folks moved on; a few stayed to service the chimera of test results; No Child Left Behind zealotry claimed a couple. Monroe graduated and faded into America, nearly unnoticed.

What remains today is an empty space where care eked out a life for a couple of years. The (non-existent) Nobel Prize for Education surely awaits the person who finally figures-out how to teach kids to care. Until a person begins to care, there seems little to do except to make and spend money, to breed, and to fight, with perhaps a final cookie, in Thomas Pyncheon’s estimation, for good behavior. If young people can be brought to care, their easy cynicism morphs into idealism and enormous self-interest and energy. Laytonville’s Bio-core program tapped some of this energy. The high-school curriculum, arrived-at through literal centuries of meetings and maneuverings, was re-invigorated as something local, where possible, and having direct application to what was happening in town when it wasn’t local. As we had hoped when we wrote the original proposal to the state, our kids started to care. Those of them now nearing their thirties and on the inevitable edge of middle-aged angst will doubtless remember.

Imagine, here near the end, that the world, or at least our tiny piece of it, had started to care. This is not, perhaps, quite as grandiose as it sounds. If most of the folks in the world truly cared for their places – if they acted as though their lives fully depended on the long-term health of the ground under their feet – it is hard to see how clearcuts could continue; it is hard to understand how traffic chaos or pollution of our waterways and air could continue to plague us, why the whales and the high-mountain grasses and the glaciers would ever have to go: how nearly any of it could continue. The people wouldn’t stand for it. They would know at least some of the relevant science, and they would give room for their spirit to get its proper daily workout. They would know in their bones that money is not always the answer and they would live in ways that made that true. They would know the real truths of how their place came to be their place. In Laytonville, they would understand as much as could be known about where the salmon went, and that knowledge would help them to understand why the folks out on the Rez were the way they were, and why that three acres out on the ridge past the fire lookout looked the way it did, even when it wasn’t blowing dust, so.

At this remove, what we tried to make happen back in the Nineties in Laytonville looks far too naïve and idealistic ever to have lead to a permanent change in the ways that public schools fulfill their responsibilities; still less was there ever a real chance that we were going to change the ways in which rural communities looked at themselves. But such outcomes were always an implicit part of the plan. With the same sort of innocence that had led a few to live in stumps and to dance to the winter storms spinning in off the coast, we tried to hold up this new way of doing things as a kind of a model, helping our students, it was thought, to understand that, if a person cared, one person, or even a few, could change everything, or at least, everything that mattered. They would know that because their lives would teach them that it was so.

Well, get over it, he said. We couldn’t make it work. We couldn’t sell it here. The high school is normal again.

Seek out the most comfortable space that you have: outside is best. Pour a cup of coffee or a brandy: whatever. You might smoke a bowl or a good cigar or even a Marlboro. Be quiet until you can hear the sound of your heart. Imagine what might describe the world if most people cared. Imagine, just imagine…

One Comment

  1. Rick Weddle August 10, 2019

    Everybody will miss voices like this, and will have to take up the slack, when they go…

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