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School was different back then, but not

"We must find time to stop and thank the people who make a difference in our lives."

— John F. Kennedy

It's a new beat for me, education. Not that I haven't periodically covered school stories in virtually every Rogue Valley community in the past dozen years. But I've never been specifically assigned to the world of readin', writin' and 'rithmetic. Until now.

As I find my bearings around state assessment tests, scholarly acronyms and hall passes, one thing is for certain, it's a whole different world out there in Education Land. Especially compared to when I was a student back in Pasadena, Calif., during the '60s and '70s.

Except that it isn't.

Because, at the end of the day, isn't an educator's most important job helping kids succeed — in the real world?

Thursday I met with Crater High School's three principals, along with a few of their students. We assembled in the Renaissance campus leader's office.

Bob King and I chatted for a bit before fellow principals Tiffany Slaughter and Julie Howland joined the mix, and the students, of course. The principals and I chatted again after the interviews.

Of particular note was their repeated emphasis that they, and all the teachers at the three campuses, have a connection to each and every student. Their goal, they said, is to ensure these kids know they are valued and that their education is valuable, too.

The high achievers. Those who struggle. And everyone in the middle.

"There are no invisible students at this school," King said.

Wouldn't that be wonderful if that could be true at every school. For every student.

I shared with the principals that my favorite aunt, Winnie Dorn, had started a school for the disenfranchised and "invisible" kids.

I didn't tell them that I attended public schools, starting out in a K-6 elementary school in a fairly affluent neighborhood. Because I was placed in the "gifted" program and was a lover of learning, you might be picturing a pretty idyllic experience. Unfortunately, my particular class was rather — how shall I put this? — quite Lord-of-the-Flyish. Precocious with fiendishly combative tendencies, the kids regularly staged gladiator battles on the library lawn. "Fight! Fight! Fight!"

Me? I always heard my mother calling. "Gotta go!"

Things got better when they brought in a special teacher to "handle" us fisticuffs hooligans. Everyone expected this man who looked like Abraham Lincoln's doppelganger to bring the hammer down. We were braced to rebel against the pending Draconian tactics. But what really happened was Mr. Willems engaged us in fun projects that kept our minds and bodies challenged, and he taught us how to pull together as a group by orchestrating an on-campus Olympic Games. Our medals were handed out by skating legend Peggy Fleming. And we went from being "that bad class" to the envy of the school.

Bussed to an inner-city middle school, my girlfriends and I learned that going into McKinley's bathrooms could cost you your life. Or at least your lunch money. There were frequent beatings and occasional stabbings, and I ended up with a broken arm during one fracas. Compared to what others endured, I got off easy — and survived by escaping into the sweet harmonies found in Mr. Coday's choir room.

"I just tried so hard to be invisible my whole time there," said my friend Dove, who still shudders at the memories.

Invisible. It's a common refrain.

I was never very good at disappearing. But kids can be good at hiding. Especially if they're scared. Especially if they're troubled. Especially if they're in trouble.

My high school had the worst reputation in town. I distinctly remember being terrified before the start of my freshman year. All the kids would be bigger, badder, and I knew I'd better not let them see me sweat.

Frankly, I was dog tired of loving learning and being scared to go to school. Thankfully, the gods of secondary education finally smiled. Or maybe the educators got their acts together. Or maybe we were all growing up. Whatever the case, my memories of John Muir High School are practically halcyon. Go figure.

Still, it bears mentioning former alumni include both baseball legend Jackie Robinson and Robert F. Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan. I've often wondered about their vastly divergent places in history. What happened at home? What happened at school? Who was seen? Who was invisible?

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or sspecht@mailtribune.com.