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Ring, Ring Goes the Bell: a Brief Personal History of American High Schools, 1957-2018

In the late 1960s, near the peak of my own revolutionary romanticism, when many of my comrades thought that the American Empire would soon implode, I joined a Weatherman action called “a jailbreak.” Most of us were college graduates, but we regarded schools as institutions that turned students into obedient citizens, eager consumers and agents of empire.

Some of us in Weatherman found plenty of ammunition for our actions, and others like it, in Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society in which he wrote that schools are the “worse places for getting an education” and that “school is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.” With arguments like those, many of us thought that we didn’t have to think for ourselves.

Chuck Berry’s 1957 anti-school anthem “School Days” had already planted the seeds of defiance in her heads and our bodies: “Close up your books,/get out of your seat/ Down the halls and into the street/ Up to the corner and ’round the bend/ Right to the juke joint, you go in.”

With Chuck Berry’s lyrics rocking us out of the cold war mind-set, we began to believe that schools were dumb, streets were cool, and that the jukebox was a font of information and knowledge. Later, Pink Floyd added to our repertoire in lyrics like, “We don’t need no education,/we don’t need no thought control,” which borrowed from George Orwell’s 1984.

In the summer of 1969, before the Chicago protest called “The Days of Rage,” the big Weatherman idea was to case a school, invade a classroom and urge the students to escape from what we regarded as the educational prison in which they were incarcerated. Anti-authoritarian actions of this kind were staged in select cities around the country. The action I joined took place in Brooklyn, New York, where I was born, though not raised.

My parents brought me up in Huntington, Long Island where I went to grade school, junior high and high school. In the 1950s, I was a teenage rebel without a cause, but with a fierce dislike of rules and authorities. My classmates and I, and students around the country, had an end-of-the-school year mantra, “No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers dirty looks.”

I didn’t regard Huntington High School as a jail, but I felt confined by teachers and administrators, and irked by lectures in which no instructor talked about slavery, colonialism, the labor movement, or the genocidal wars against American Indians. Columbia College didn’t feel much better. As Columbia professor Ann Douglas once said, “The great thing about Columbia is that it’s in Manhattan.” In 1968, when I was 26, I joined students at Columbia who occupied five buildings. I was arrested and taken to jail, along with over 700 other protesters. From jail it was only a hop, skip and a jump to a Weatherman collective where I took part in what was called criticism-self-criticism sessions where participants were encouraged to “push it out,” and that felt to me, at the time, like psychological torture.

Still, I took part in the jailbreak at that Brooklyn high school, though I didn’t actually invade the school or occupy the classroom. My job was to drive the getaway car because I was the only person in the collective who owned a car. I used it to get to work at the State University of New York at Stony Brook on Long Island where I taught a class titled “Literature and Revolution” and another called “Pornography: from the Marquis de Sade to The Story of O.” My colleagues ridiculed the course as “Dirty Books 101.” Not surprisingly, the university didn’t renew my contract. In college all across the U.S. teachers like me were banished from academia, though some were savvy enough to survive the purges in “the ivory tower.”

I was reminded of the 1969 Weatherman jailbreak when I recently walked into Credo High School near my home in northern California. “Credo,” which means, “I believe,” is a tuition-free public high school, though it feels like a private school for the elite.

Going to Credo was in many ways a dream-come-true. Like journalist Cameron Crowe, who went undercover at a San Diego high school and wrote Fast Times at Ridgemont High, I’d long wanted to explore the world that fifteen-to-eighteen-year-olds experience in classrooms, hallways and playgrounds. Unlike Crowe, I didn’t go undercover and unlike him, I didn’t discover a world of seething teenage sexuality and rampant use of illegal substances. Rather, I met environmentally aware and politically savvy teens.

At Credo, the students are overwhelmingly white and middle class. If they had been alive in 1969, Weathermen and Weatherwomen would have said that they enjoyed “white skin privilege.” The Credo students don’t think of themselves as privileged, though they know that students from poor and working class families often have fewer opportunities than they do. The Credo students also see themselves as potential targets of madmen and assassins. Accordingly, they practice “shooter drills” in case an armed invader actually opens fire and aims to kill as many people as possible.

Many Credo students also have an intense feeling that they’ve inherited a world that’s in danger of an ecological melt down. Like student protesters in the 1960s and 1970s, they use the privileges they enjoy to do a lot – like marching, speaking out, registering their peers to vote, recycling and cleaning up garbage on the coast and in streams. Some have a dream in much the way that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream.

Information about ecological disaster depresses some of the Credo students. The best way to counteract it, they explained to me, wasn’t to take pills, but to become socially engaged. After the shooting that took place last April in Parkland, Florida that left 17 dead and 17 wounded, students at Credo walked out of classes. They marched with banners to city hall in Cotati where the boomer Vice Mayor, Mark Landman, greeted them with open arms and the words, “We’ve been waiting for a long time for your generation to make your voices heard,”

The Credo students are more polite than the Weathermen. They also have a sense of humor and laughed a lot at school. One woman who protested the shootings at Parkland carried a sign outside Cotati city hall that read, “Excuse the disturbance we’re trying to change the world.”

That woman and her classmates didn’t ask for permission to march to Cotati, and certainly not from the executive director, Chip Romer, 65, who told me “Rebellion is a healthy thing.” Educated at Notre Dame, where he majored in economics, Romer remembered that during his undergraduate days, college students knew about Rachel Carson and DDT, but didn’t make a personal connection to the earth itself.

“Now, more than ever before, we have to have a sustainable planet so today’s youth can do what they want and need to do,” Romer told me.

Students learn about sustainability from teachers such as Marika Ramsden, 31, who explained, “What links all our interests at Credo—sustainability, gun violence, climate change, and zero waste—is student empowerment and student voices.”

Ramsden was born in California and raised in England until she was 16 when she returned to the States. She graduated from the Summerfield Waldorf School in Santa Rosa and then attended St. Andrews University in Scotland where she studied sustainable development.

In 2012, she bicycled a thousand miles from Land’s End in Southwest England to John o’ Groats in Northeast Scotland, handed out cameras to students along the way and invited them to tell the story of sustainability in their schools.

At Credo, Ramsden teaches the “One Planet” class—which emphasizes ecological thought and action—and anchors the academic program. She also guides the One Planet “student captains” who play leadership roles on campus.

Almost everywhere she goes, Ramsden talks about One Planet’s principles that call for sustainability in transportation, water, food, materials, cultures and communities, plus zero carbon and zero waste, which is a huge challenge at Credo and elsewhere because, as Romer explained, “Our culture is all about waste.”

Bioregional, the international nonprofit organization that gave birth to the One Planet concept, envisions a world in which “people enjoy happy, healthy lives within their fair share of the earth’s resources” and also leave “space for wildlife and wilderness.”

Sue Riddlestone and her husband, Pooran Desai, founded Bioregional in 1992 in large part because they were alarmed by the specter of overconsumption and the proliferation of waste. Ramsden fell in love with their program. She also recognized the role that schools and students could play when it came to the creation of local solutions to global problems. And then brought the One Planet program to Credo.

“We’re finding out what works and what doesn’t through trial and error,” Ramsden told me. She explained that students at Credo “learn that if everyone in the world were to use the resources that people in the U.S. use, it would take five planets to fulfill their wants and needs.” She added, “We have to live within our means.”

If it were up to Ramsden every school and every community would adopt the One Planet principles. Berkeley, Oakland and San Mateo are already moving in that direction; other cities are beginning to do much the same.

Rohnert Park’s SOMO Village, where Credo is housed, was the very first One Planet community in North America. Geof Syphers, the first Chief Sustainability Officer at what was originally called Sonoma Mountain Village, remembered that he “worked very hard” to help bring Credo to the site. He had help from Chip Romer and a whole team of educators.

Credo student smarts are apparent to visitors who observe them as they arrive at the school on foot and by bicycle, and then head for classrooms—or not. Some stay outdoors to create a habitat and pollinator garden, as they did in the spring 2018 semester with help from farm teacher, Kelley McNeal. Beginning in the fall 2018 semester, they’ll cultivate a two-acre parcel at SOMO Village, learn the principles of biodynamic agriculture and grow vegetables.

In some ways, Credo students are outliers in their generation. Still, as Romer points out, “They also have many of the same cultural traits of typical American teenagers: they love music, they’re competitive in sports and they’re invested in social media.”

They’re better informed about sustainability, zero waste and zero carbon than Romer was when he was a student. In their own way, they’re revolutionaries, though they aim to make changes by voting in national and local elections not by going underground or rioting in the streets. As they know, getting members of their own generation to vote won’t be easy. Americans aged 17-25 are less likely to send in a ballot or go to a polling booth than any other demographic group.

“We’re the worst at voting,” student Jonah Gottlieb told me. “We need legislative change on a whole lot of issues, including homelessness.” He’s been registering voters for a year.

Caitlyn Thomasson, 21, isn’t a teacher or a student at Credo. She attends Santa Rosa Junior College, and works with some of the Credo students and faculty members on environmental issues.

“I looked at the world and saw a host of problems,” Thomasson told me. “Species decline, deforestation, glaciers melting, oceans rising, loss of land, over-population and over consumption.”

She added, “the only thing that stopped me from total depression was action.” Much the same could be said for protesters during the Vietnam War when the nightly news bombarded viewers with images of carnage, brutality and torture. Radicals discovered ways to nurture themselves when, as the romantic poet, John Keats, observed, “The misery of the world makes me miserable.”

The bestselling American author, Jack London, who was bi-polar and suicidal, expressed much the same idea about action as therapy a hundred years ago. “I meditated suicide,” he wrote in his memoir, John Barleycorn in which he describes his addiction to alcohol and his struggles to free himself.

“I threw myself with fierce zeal into the fight for socialism,” he exclaimed. The students at Credo aren’t socialists, but they, and students like them, have what’s needed to start the process that might lead to radical change in the world. Indeed, they have “zeal.”

At the entrance to Credo, where a dozen skateboards were lined-up against a wall, it struck me that history does repeat itself. It also occurred to me that we ought to rethink the idea that history repeats itself. We need a new figure of speech and a new paradigm that reflects the experience of Marika Ramsden, who learned a lot in schools and also on her thousand-mile-bike ride across Britain, much as Che Guevara blossomed as a medical student at the University of Buenos Aires—though he rejected a career as a doctor—and on his epic motorcycle journeys across South America. More American high schools should be like Credo; if they were I’d go back to school.

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