Wednesday, August 17, 2011
RIVER ROAD AND GRIDLEY HIGHWAY,
OUTSIDE OF COLUSA, CALIFORNIA
Going back and forth between two points, like when commuting, it is difficult to find something new to see or some new way to go. Such was the case when, returning from Healdsburg to Roseville via Clear Lake, I avoided taking state route 16 south from state route 20. Instead, I hopped over to Williams, thence to Colusa. Having been reared in Chico, I know this area of the Sacramento Valley, or so I thought.
A left turn at the end of Colusa’s main drag found me on a new-to-me lane. “River Road” crosses the Sacramento and immediately bends northward. After seven hours in the saddle, this was counter to the direction I had intended to travel. But I knew the checkerboard pattern of valley farmland from flying Southwest Air on approach to Sacramento Metropolitan Field. I knew that, very soon, some secondary road would beeline east and I would hook into 99 just north of Yuba City.
I just knew it.
38 years ago, I’d been appointed to my first teaching position in Durham, California. Durham is a pleasant agricultural berg a few miles south of Chico. Durham Unified, while serving a relatively small population of children, spans the largest geographical area of all of the school districts in Butte County: east to the gold country, west to the river. In and around town, almond orchards predominate. The southern part of the district is primarily laser-planed valley floor filled with rice fields.
I’d hired on to teach a small number of seventh and eighth grade students who were deemed too – today’s term is – “at risk” to succeed in the regular classroom. These kids weren’t dumb. Just squirrelly. And I’d have them for most of their day.
Mandy Scottschild (a pseudonym) was twelve, maybe thirteen. She lived out south in the rice fields.
She didn’t lack smarts, but she did lack something. Often, she wore the same outfit for a week at a time. I don’t recall that she smelled particularly girlish – whatever that means. And I know she annoyed the boys, the majority of my charges, by running up to them, doing something I never quite saw, and then running away.
“She’s about as welcome as a horse fly at a beach party,” said a faculty member in the staff room.
“Yeah,” said another, “but by sixteen, she’ll have one of her own.”
Mandy’s pregnant mother attended my very first back-to-school night. She came up afterward but only to comment that they’d named their daughter after the song.
Mandy’s dad showed up at school a few of times, mostly to complain to me if the girl brought home too much work or had a run-in with a classmate.
“Look,” he said. “I’m a common laborer. I can’t fix much o’ nothin’. But you’re a teacher. College degree. You need to fix my kid.”
He was a big man who wore aged blue jeans and a sleeveless used-to-be white undershirt. His face had been shaven at one time, perhaps, but on his infrequent visits, he looked much like the last iconic photos we have of Saddam Hussein. Although, back in those days, Saddam was our ally.
I don’t recall what I said to Mr. Scottschild in response, but I don’t suppose it would have mattered.
Motoring north on River Road, I’m waiting for that turn that will point me east. To my left is the river levee. To my right, miles upon miles of valley loam filled with bright green August-level stalks of rice. Occasionally, a pair of ruts will run through the paddies to a singular house shaded by a willow or a black walnut.
As the school year progressed, Mandy’s toying with the boys subsided only once her new sister arrived. For a couple of weeks, she regaled her classmates incessantly about the newborn and how she cared for it. Soon, however, she returned to simply bugging the hell out of the boys.
Two years later, Mandy and her colleagues moved across the parking lot to the high school and I was moved to fourth grade. By Christmas break, the community was abuzz that Mandy had left school. Pregnant. It was scandalous.
Further north than I wanted to go, the Gridley Highway tees off to the right. I steamed east. “Steamed” because the temperature was in the mid-nineties and the bottomlands were still dense with moisture from a late spring, but also steamed at myself for having detoured this far out of the way.
Unlike River Road, Gridley Highway divides acres of rice stalks. The river’s course disappears in my rear view mirror. I find myself in the southern-most end of the district that gave birth to my career in education. A dirt path splits off to the north. It follows one of those graceful little dikes the farmers use to separate the rice fields by elevation in order to meter the water they flood over newly planted seeds. You can see them from the air on approach to Sac Metro. Maybe a hundred yards up that path, a graying little house stands on some long-ago engineered high ground. Clothes flutter from a line secured to the side of the structure opposite where the willow or walnut grows.
I only glance up the dirty little drive as I ride past. But in that moment, what I’ve reported here resurfaces.
It’s been 38 years. Mandy is a grandmother by now. Perhaps a great-grandmother if my math is accurate. That is, unless, somewhere along the way, some young first-year teacher broke through and, you know, fixed things.
Church of the Open Road Press