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.