By Ernie McCray
No sooner than I had checked into facebook I got the chilling news about a lockdown at the John Muir K-12 Magnet School, a school I nurtured during its first four years – four of the most satisfying revealing validating unbelievable inspiring awakening beautiful questioning yummy xenophobic-less desirable hopeful colorful wacky pleasurable fruitful exhausting kaleidoscopic glorious touching open lasting joyful noteworthy zestful memorable years of my life.
It was John Muir Alternative School to us, back then in 1974, and no matter what the name, the mere notion that someone, anyone, would threaten it’s hallowed boundaries with a gun is about as scary a thought as there could be for me.
Anyway, that’s my baby, that school. I’m recalling a day when a list of jobs in the district, San Diego City Schools, landed on my desk at Horton Elementary. One opening practically jumped off the page at me. A principal was needed to create an alternative innovative experimental school that would be child-centered and family-centered and everything positive that a school could be/should be and I dropped everything I was doing and signed the application for that position like I was in a speed writing contest and broke the sound barrier getting that piece of paper into somebody’s hands.
It sounded like a dream job, to me, as I had been using the far reaches of my creativity to withstand the stultifying early stages of “Back to Basics” the district was increasingly embracing. I wanted in on this delightful opportunity to fly free and create something with people that was worthy of students’ time, not to mention my time.
I showed up at the interview ready to go any direction they wanted to go, prepared to say what I felt they wanted me to hear – whoever “they” were. I can play the game. And when I walked into the room and saw teenagers among those who were to interview me, I dropped any thought of playing games, as I can’t jive children (or anybody else ever since that day) – and I knew the job was mine.
I felt that way because I knew when I started telling everybody about stuff I had pulled off in a classroom, about how I had students leaning forward to see what’s next, those kids in the interviewing room would know, based on their school experiences, that I had been “innovating” all along, all out. I shared nothing but truths, nothing unproved. I became a new man in a slot of time on an interview schedule. My spiritual side was mainly my guide. And that’s how I still ride. Unapologetically. No more “what you want to hear” from me. I’m forever thankful to Muir for that.
The job was won but the fun had just begun. The next four years were done on the run. Learning was in the very air we breathed. Doing was the order of the day. Just jump in. Murals all of a sudden appeared on the walls, art work on a par with the work at Chicano Park. Other arts everywhere. Stained glass. Paintings. Sculptures. Instruments being played in classrooms, and on the lawn, and in the hallways. Yoga on the grass. Dancers dancing. Prancers prancing. Actors emoting. The “bore breakers” interrupting when our “Town Meetings” (a place for airing and/or entertaining) got too serious and we got too full of ourselves… We could laugh with the best of them. And cry with the saddest of them.
It was a human place, a whirlwind of interaction with feelings expressed all over the place, all the time, as everyone had political power. Everyone was “equal” to whatever extent they could carry that off, be they a five year old, a seventeen year old, a forty year old…
Oh, the memories… We had a radio station created literally from scrap (with some donated equipment, thanks to KOGO Radio) by young men who would go on to great careers in radio and in the entertainment industry.
The term “educator” at Muir was very broad, indeed, as that would include those on the district payroll and students and parents and people from all around the community who wanted to take part in something that was so refreshingly energizing as a place of learning. With that being said, some of the most creative educators I have ever been privileged to know brought magic to our school, making their subjects live and they would give what they taught fancy names or a simple name like “Phil Donohue,” yes, the show. It was taught by a kid. And I took the class and will always remember the discussions after the show that would stimulate our thinking about just about everything in our universe, beautiful little arguments tinted every now and then with reasoned dissents. Loved every minute of it.
I get breathy just thinking about it because we were on fire, wild, passionate, questioning – on the whole, respectable. A physical fight would have been the rarest of sights on our campus. It was an open campus, with anyone free to come and go, so if you needed to blow off some steam you could just take a drive or skateboard or bike or walk and then come back and sit and talk. Did so many a time.
I can’t help but recall a class I taught called “Rap with Ernie” (standing room only in a school where you didn’t have to go to class). We’d lay out the issues of the day and brainstorm ways to lessen the matters that divided us, so we could have a better chance of making our world a better place.
Another class, “History of the Future,” taught by a gifted history and government teacher, did much the same thing, looking at what has been and what was and what might be – and in neither class, in all our critical thinking, did we predict a world where people would threaten children with guns while they were at play.
We believed in lifelong learning, though, and, when it comes to guns, we Americans need to learn, in these times, how to talk about this fascination we have with firearms and learn how to stand up to the NRA who spends billions of dollars to distract us from even trying to solve this horrible national problem.
I can’t think of John Muir Alternative School, in light of the gun incident which turns out to be a paintball and replica gun incident (which, to me, keeps the incident in the category of a menacing incident) without thinking such thoughts. My love goes out to my descendants on the Muir Family Tree. I hope, after this scare, that they are emotionally and psychologically as sound as they can be. And I hope the perpetrator gets the help he so desperately needs as we strove to be compassionate at my old school. Love ruled our day.
Love it, Ernie! The vision you created in this essay reminds me a lot of an amazing school I substitute taught at in Austin named Khabele School. Reading this also made me wish I would have been more present and thankful during my 10th grade year at Muir instead of being such a teenager!
Ernie McCray says
During my years there I can say that we were pretty good at relating to those who were “being such a teenager!”
I would have loved to work for you Ernie! I am appalled at the amount of lock downs and guns brought to school making the news these days. I am not sorry to be gone but my heart aches for the children lost in a sinking system that does not cherish the arts and has kids in mind…..see you soon. I’ll be in SD next Tuesday all summer.
We Americans persistently want to have our cake and eat it too.
We want the entertainment industry to be free to depict all manner of gun violence in HDTV and SurroundSound on video games, TV shows, and movies. But! we also expect that No One of the hundreds of millions titillated by onscreen gun violence will want to have a go at it for real.
I was attending the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in 1974, an engineering prep HS founded in 1888 — which finally got a round to admitting its first female students in the early 1970’s. Yes, a lot was going on in the ’70s — all across our great nation.
Dena (Scott) West says
I just relived 1976-80 at John Muir Alternative. Thank you, Ernie! Like you, I hope the school resonates with love today, and incidents like this find their ending.
Brilliant article. This is the 1st I have heard of
this gun inciedent. That is not what Muir stands
for. It is always a mission to find alternate methods.
Rob Sisco says
As brilliantly eloquent as ever! For those of us who were fortunate enough to be with you and that amazing faculty, the experience, from a student’s perspective, was truly life changing. The “lessons” we learned at M.A.S. are still vibrant and relevant four decades later. Thoughtfulness, critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, and COMPASSION for others.
It’s impossible to know where my personal journey would have led if not for the dedication and paitence of your team (and you willingness to let us build that radio station) but, I adore the path you allowed me to discover.
It makes me so happy to know that everyone is safe at the present day Muir – and to know that young people are still being encouraged to investigate themselves, and to identify their own paths.
Bobby Rich says
To: Mr. McCray,
You sir are a brilliant writer–this piece was devastatingly loud and truly spoke to me. I feel fortunate to just be connected to you via former student siblings. One is my closest and dearest friend- the other her equally awesome and special twin brother.
You have earned the love and respect of all those you mentored, and those who love them today.
Thank you for being Ernie.
Ernie McCray says
And thank you for your kind words, Bobby. It was because of people like your “closest and dearest friend” and “her equally awesome and special twin brother,” two people I love dearly, that Muir was such a satisfying revealing validating unbelievable inspiring awakening beautiful questioning yummy xenophobic-less desirable hopeful colorful wacky pleasurable fruitful exhausting kaleidoscopic glorious touching open lasting joyful noteworthy zestful memorable experience for me.
And thank you for keeping my hometown entertained via the airwaves. You and Debbie have added so much to Tucson through your presence.
Jim Cox says
I am from of the students from Muir back when it started, Muir was the reason I finished high school! thanks Ernie!
Muir Was truly a unique educational experience.
Ernie McCray says
It’s so great hearing from you beloved Muirites.
Rainee Glickman says
Beautiful article, Ernie. Made me remember, feel proud, and gave me joy thinking of the old times. The work of love and education always continues. The lockdown was a setback, a stinging slap in the face.
But the Muir Family is doing fine. We have been supported and helped. Thank you for your love and remembering us!
Ernie McCray says
I’m so glad everyone is doing fine.
Carmi Strom says
Ernie, as always it is a joy to read your writing. Life is filled with two way streets. Muir was one of them. You gained so much from us, but as a young student looking up to you It changed my life. I am who I am today, because of the life lesson taught me at Muir and having parents that had the forethought to send me there.
Always a Muirite,
Ernie McCray says
Lov you, dude.
Zach Margolis says
Wow. Great read. My first day at Muir in ’74 i set off a fire extinguisher in the music room, went to your office expecting to be sent home. You asked if I was going to do it again, i said no, and that was the end of it. I stayed. Changed my life.
Thanks for everything Big-E. We all still love ya.
Ernie McCray says
Hey, what’s a little fire extinguisher incident between new friends?