Far Out School
Pacific Valley School is as unique as its Southern Big Sur surroundings.
Thursday, February 8, 2007
At first glance, Raeanna Thomasson’s classroom at Big Sur’s Pacific Valley School looks no different than other elementary school classroom. There are fluorescent lights overhead and ABCs on the wall. There is a mischievous boy hiding behind a partition while another young male student tells Thomasson the sort of scientific fact that only kids seem to know: “Did you know that if a person grew up their whole life the same speed they grew up as a baby then they would become the size of Jupiter?”
Only Thomasson’s class is very different. First off, it contains the entire third to sixth grade population—a whopping five students. As they finish up their cursive writing assignments, the school distinguishes itself from other public schools even more: Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” blares over the sound system, signaling the end of class.
All told, Pacific Valley, which is located on a marine terrace in Southern Big Sur, has only 21 kindergarten through high school students. The children are grouped into four blocks: kindergarten and first grade, third through sixth graders, ninth through 11th graders and the senior class.
Today is the last regular school day for Pacific Valley’s senior class. With Petty singing “I’m tired of this town,” the five seniors make their way down a small hill past a couple of dogs to David Allan’s art class. Nearby, a generator that supplements the school’s solar energy system hums diligently.
Inside, paintings and drawings of the area’s rugged coastline adorn the walls. The students immediately start working on their art projects. As reggae music plays from a laptop, the lone female senior, Wendy Waters, tells Allan—who is not only the art teacher but also the school’s grant writer and Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) leader—how a recent report on artists piqued her interest in painter Georgia O’Keeffe. “Yeah, that report was kinda fun,” seconds senior Jesse Gering-Comello.
Gering-Comello, an engaging young man with a mass of wavy brown hair on his head, is the only senior who has attended Pacific Valley since kindergarten. Though he says he tried to rebel against his rural surroundings by embracing pursuits like video games, the senior eventually learned that his parent’s back-to-the-earth ideals were important. “I’ve seen myself change over the years,” he says. “I really enjoy Big Sur now. I know who I am now.”
But Gering-Comello’s looking forward to leaving Pacific Valley, especially for one reason. “We are guys, and we want the opposite sex,” he says, nodding towards Waters. “She is the only girl, but she has a 200-pound boyfriend.”
Waters says she has enjoyed attending Pacific Valley since seventh grade because there’s not as much peer pressure thanks to the small student population. She neglects to mention the idyllic setting for PE classes on nearby Sand Dollar Beach, or the daily 50-minute music lessons for elementary school students, designed to have every Pacific Valley attendee playing an instrument and reading sheet music by the end of sixth grade. A new addition to the school is an after-school GATE program taught by John Handy, a parent volunteer and former vice president of the design department at Mattel toys. Handy will help the students enter an invention contest.
Principal Thomasson—who is also Pacific Valley’s superintendent, principal, PE teacher and third through sixth grade teacher—just joined the Pacific Valley staff this past August. A former teacher and principal in Arroyo Grande’s Lucia Mar School District, she hopes to expand Pacific Valley so that it can offer adult education classes and a pre-school.
Following a hand-prepared lunch of chicken teriyaki over rice, salad, fruit, and a slab of homemade pineapple upside-down cake, the five seniors attend their last class at Pacific Valley: Joyce Duffy’s World Literature course. With their final project completed, the seniors are allowed to watch The Da Vinci Code during their final minutes of high school.
When the movie ends, the seniors say goodbye to Duffy and exit the building. “They are wonderful kids,” Duffy says of the seniors. “I just hope I have given them enough life skills to get out of Big Sur.”
A few minutes later, the seniors are down the hill and being mobbed by a crowd of Pacific Valley’s younger students. As Queen’s “We Are the Champions” starts to play on the sound system, two of them—Waters and Torre Nichols—celebrate by playing air guitar. The younger kids look on like admiring fans.