We have what we need for great schools

By JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald March 20, 2009 11:27 am

The closing of a school is, with rare exceptions, a sad occasion.

This is due, it seems to me, to the unique nature of schools.

No building seems as empty as a shuttered school, for the simple reason that no building seems so full as one occupied by children who are learning to add fractions and to subtract superfluous adverbs from their sentences.

Playgrounds look particularly forlorn when deprived of kids. The sight of a ball field with basepaths overrun by dandelions rather than sneakers is a dismal one indeed.

Two of Baker City’s schools will be closed when classes start in September. That makes three schools this decade — almost half the city’s total.

The pending closures seem to me especially melancholy because the two schools, North Baker and the Central Building on the middle school campus, are older than the four schools that will stay open.

North Baker turns 100 this year. The Central Building, which served as Baker High School for its first 35 years, opened in 1917.

Besides their longevity, the two schools are significant for their structure. Both were built from locally quarried volcanic tuffstone, the distinctive brown rock that also constitutes the backbone of Baker City Hall and the Baker County Courthouse, among others.

These are, of course, merely unfortunate coincidences — the school board bears no special grudge against old buildings assembled from native materials.

Still and all, I can’t suppress a twinge of nostalgia-tinged sadness at the thought that this coming autumn will be the first since the Taft administration in which students will neither carry their books to North Baker nor brighten its halls with their vibrant laughter.

But I don’t want to get too maudlin about this.

Buildings, no matter how powerful the emotions we attach to them, are no more than stacks of wood and stone, plaster and glass. They neither laugh nor cry, learn nor love. They are coldly inanimate, and the warmth we feel for them comes not from the buildings but from the people who have spent time inside.

The true legacies of North Baker and the Central Building are the children, so many thousands of them, who relished within their walls the pure joys of becoming lost in a well-crafted story and of finding their way through the labyrinth of mathematics.

And the teachers who challenged them, who showed them that knowledge, and its pursuit, could enrich their lives.

And the cooks who served them a hot lunch before they went out to play on a sub-zero day.

And the parents and grandparents and siblings who came to hear them sing Christmas carols in their squeaky, off-key voices.

Closing a couple of schools can’t diminish any of this, any more than an artist’s talent can be restrained if she must paint on wood rather than canvas.

To cite one example, I’m confident that the parents and other volunteers who have made the annual North Baker Carnival such a popular event will not turn selfish now that the doors of their school have been locked.

The spirit they exemplify, it seems to me, is immune to budget cuts and defiant of recession.

Most important, it can’t be confined to a place.

It’s a pity that such fine old structures as North Baker and the Central Building and Churchill, which closed six years ago, no longer serve their noble purposes.

But we don’t need great buildings to have great schools.

We need great people.

And in that respect, no matter what the school district’s ledger shows, we are wealthy.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.