Twenty years ago this week, I began teaching at Neskowin Valley School in South Tillamook County on the North Oregon Coast. I left the Portland loft in the Pearl District and my teaching job at Hillsboro High School, and with my then wife, Cindy, moved west, to the sea.
It was supposed to be a one-year cultural experiment.
At NVS, I began to revolutionize my entire life and found a path to becoming a writer. There, I really learned how to teach. There, I met the man who installed me as caretaker of the Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge. There, I got Ray, the wandering Shepherd mutt on Highway 101. There, I found the ocean. There ,I found Nestucca Spit and Bob Straub’s incredible story of saving it from desecration. There, I met someone who would later become my greatest friend and fighter in my corner and my greatest roadie and confidante, but now sadly vanished from my life.
I taught seventh and eighth grade language arts and social studies and science and PE and health and everything under the sun except math. I acted in a play, formed rock bands, mopped, led poetry slams, led weekly bike rides to the beach, planted trees, and went on class trips to SF and Montana—on the train. It was by far the most exhausting and rewarding job of my teaching career.
I could write a book about my two years at NVS. Wait, I did! It’s called Gimme Refuge: Education of a Caretaker. For some inexplicable reason, I left out a story from that book that I now want to share on the occasion of my 20-year NVS anniversary. The story just recently surfaced out of nowhere, like so many good stories do.
It’s about a bookshelf.
The first activity we did as a class (13 the first year, 21 the second) was to paint the various bookshelves that came with the classroom and ones I brought with me. The shelf, pictured here, was one of them.
I divided the class into three groups and let each group paint one of the shelves. Then I stepped back and observed. I wanted to see how they worked together, who was a leader, who was a slacker, all of that teaching stuff.
The painting was slipshod, this shelf in particular. The students were not together on any level—no cooperation. There was tension between boys and girls. There were also flashes of unique personalities that presaged good things for the future.
When I left the job, I took the shelf with me to the refuge, then Newport, then Astoria, where I stashed it sideways in the garage and it gathered dust and spiders.
For some reason, I hauled it out the other day to the back deck, hosed it off, and painted it again, 20 years later. Start over with a new coat of paint, like I’m starting over. Let the shelf start over, too. It’s not going with me to my next stop, wherever that is. But someone will have a fine wooden bookshelf with a decent paint job. Books will look grand in it.
I painted listening to Charlie Parker. I chose a creamy white color. While I painted, I went back to my NVS days and it was a nice two-hour journey into the past. I did good work there, for my students, the school, but also for myself.
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