Wednesday, April 1, 2009

"find the political courage"

Modjeska Canyon resident and longtime Irvine high school teacher Jim Mamer sent the following letter to OUSD Superintendent Dreier on Tuesday March 31.

Superintendent Renae Dreier:

Andrew Tonkovich’s statement at the board meeting of March 26th is probably better than anything I might write. And I’m pretty sure that you remember it, but I’d like to add a couple of comments.

I live in these canyons with my wife, three cats, and dozens of friends, but I teach in Irvine at Northwood High and I often share my experience of living in this very old and very beautiful canyon with my students. Amazingly, almost none of them even know that these homes are here. They don’t know about the riparian streams or the variety of birds. They don’t know what California really looks like. So I talk. I talk about the two old oak trees in front of my home. I talk about the meetings we have at the volunteer fire station. I talk about stars that are still visible in a canyon without streetlights. I talk about the sounds of cicadas in the oak trees of summer, and the frogs, and the nuisance of the small black flies that come every August. I talk about the winds that sweep through the canyons – sometimes cold and sometimes hot. I talk about what it is like to share a bottle of wine with neighbors while watching the sun set on hills that are older than the country we live in. I talk about listening to an owl call out from the dark. I talk about the sense of community we all experienced when the fires surrounded us.

As you may or may not know we have a lot to be thankful for in these hills, but of course, as you certainly know, we’ve been through a lot recently with the fires and the smoke and the ashes. After listening, my students always respond with questions: How far away is Modjeska? How many HOURS does it take to get to work? It sounds like a different planet. How old is your house? Do you really know your neighbors? Can you really see the stars?

I’m sure that you understand my point. I’m sure you understand that Andrew was right when he noted that ours is a singular community; small, unique, remote, and politically vulnerable. Of course, I also understand that you have the power to close the school, but I doubt you understand that, as Andrew said, the school is one thread that weaves our families together. Did you take him seriously when he charged that you are helping to dismantle this community? Did you really believe that?

Personally, I find it absurd that we cannot, as one of the richest countries on earth, find the political courage to tax each other sufficiently to pay our bills in good times. And I find it equally absurd that we cannot, in bad times, find the political courage to maintain what is unique. You still have an opportunity to take advantage of that uniqueness. You still have an opportunity to build an environmental science program to which kids in the suburbs of Orange might elect to attend – if you let them.

I like to imagine what it would be like, if some of these potential students ever hear someone from these canyons talk about the sounds of oak cicadas and frogs, the nuisance of the small insects, and the winds crying through the canyons, I imagine how different it might be if a few more students in Orange don’t have to ask: How far away is Modjeska? because they would know from personal experience that this is what California is really like – was really like – and could be like again. I imagine what it might be like if a few more students learn the difference between native plants and transplanted, water hungry lawns.

In the end you will do what you will, but I’m afraid that Andrew was wrong about one thing - closing the last remote elementary school in Orange will not be your failure and your loss. It will be our loss, our county’s loss, and our state’s loss. It may well mark an end to what we offer and the beginning of a time when all of this will disappear into traffic, condominiums, starless skies, and graffiti. But it doesn't have to.

Jim Mamer


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  1. I am proud to have such an eloquent, thoughtful neighbor. Thanks for expressing how of many of us feel about the canyons and the school.

    Keep writing letters! Make phone calls too!

  2. OUSD should have had the vision to do long ago what Saddleback Unifed did with Trabuco Elementary - make it a special destination for the district and beyond - use its potantial. As Mamer points out, so many suburban kids could benefit from trips out here.

  3. They should cut or consolidate summer school. It's ridicualous to close this school, bus the kids two hours a day and lose all that ADA - it's really a no-brainer!