This is Episode 1 in the story of the formation, rise and fall of the little education collective that used to exist up here on our mountain. I wrote and posted this account three years ago on my blog and then pulled it off because someone whose name I had not changed, objected. Now I have changed both the name of the little school itself, and the names of everyone who might be negatively impacted, and plan to re-post the story, one episode per day, until all 32 are again on my blog.
Bell Springs Education Collective
A Chance to Try on Life
I saw an old friend the other day and he mentioned Bell Springs Education Collective and how successful it had been as a learning environment. He commented that he had always felt that the kids who went to school there seemed so much more enthusiastic about education, and did not have to be coerced to participate. He asked me what the secret was, and I told him there was no secret. The reason the kids enjoyed being there is because everyone did, and that kind of energy is contagious.
Bell Springs Educational Collective was formed in the early-eighties by a dedicated group of community members who lived up on Cow Mountain, in Northern Mendocino County. The collective was accessible by navigating up Bell Springs Road three miles, turning off and traveling up and around the Cow. Bell Springs EdCo was located on the backside of the Cow, on Joe’s land, where the two-room school was built in two construction phases. That the school was built on Joe’s land made sense to me, because he was married to Karen, who was the teacher who served as the liaison between Bell Springs EdCo and the Laytonville Unified School District. By the time Annie and I joined the collective in 1987, there were at least ten families involved, with kids ranging in grade levels from kindergarten through fifth grade.
The parents who were involved in the collective were a fiercely independent group of individuals. They had to be to live up here in the coastal mountains of Northern California, above three thousand feet elevation, where the winters are harsh and the reality of making one’s way around for the most basic of needs, presents quite a challenge. These folks were not interested in the traditional public school setting, so much as they were interested in creating an environment, in which the kids wanted to be. In that arena these parents felt their kids would be in a better position to be receptive to higher education down the line.
I have always considered the core of the collective to be five families, who were involved at the time we joined, and who were instrumental in the formation of the collective. Allow me to emphasize that there were others, but these five families were the rock upon which the collective was founded. Those five families were headed respectively by John and Marbry, Al and Marguerite, Joe and Karen, John and Beth, and Will and Kat.
These parents had high expectations of their kids, and those anticipations were extended to the other kids of the collective. There was a ratio of no greater than five students to one parent/teacher, so there was excellent support for presentation of curriculum. I never felt there was any inherent dislike of the public school system by the members of Bell Springs, so much as there was a passion to create the best possible environment and that did not exist down in town.
The philosophy or mission statement of the collective was three pages long, but the concept that leaped out at me was in part, “To encourage the child to be imaginative, as this strengthens the mind, developing inventiveness and the ability to visualize possible circumstances and values for future life. This gives the young child a chance to try on life before it is fully upon him or her.” This statement embodies a philosophy that puts the child in a position to extract the most out of an early educational experience, and to be better prepared for the challenges of higher education.
The account I would like to present is my own. I have not talked to others about it, because everyone will have his or her own opinion about what occurred, and may have a different version of the events. I am primarily focused on how it unfolded within the fabric of my own family. The reason I feel compelled to tell the story is because it involves the circumstances behind which led to my joining the Laytonville School District in 1990 as a middle school teacher, specializing in language arts.
I was in the Czech Lodge one day, when Corrine Rose Chinz approached me and asked, “Are you Mark O’Neill?” It was September of 1987 and I was working independently, mostly up on the ridge, with the occasional job in Leggett or even Laytonville.
“I am,” I replied. “May I help you?” I was looking at a slender woman-emaciated, even-whose hair was an undisciplined mass of confusion atop her head. It had the appearance of having been very pretty at some point in the distant past, but had been allowed to ramble freely for too long a time to bring it back into play. I knew her as Imika and had met her the first summer Annie and I were up here, over at Ben’s house in 1982. He and Shannon had had a gathering in late October, and we had taken Casey over for his inaugural mountain party.
I had met Imika for the first time at this party, and the one thing that stood out was that she informed me that she and Misha’s father, Stan, had experience a “crop failure.” Exactly what that looked like, I had no idea. Moreover, I was not sure why she was telling me this, but I think she just considered it small talk.
Now in the Czech Lodge, she answered, “I hope you can help me. I need to have some carpentry done on my house and your name was given to me by more than one person.” The voice was as soft and wispy as those strands of hair that refused to be part of the mass above. I found myself leaning forward to hear just a bit better.
“What kind of carpentry? What did you have in mind?” I was always willing to listen to a job offer.