This Is How the World Quietly Works


Will Rogers Elementary School in Ventura is getting a facelift. Held up against Egyptian tumult, airplane crashes, and jury acquittals this is certainly not global news, but it is just as important.

Spearheaded by first grade teacher Kris Guzman, Will Rogers Elementary School's facelift -- how can you not like a school named after a man who once said, "We are all here for a spell; get all the good laughs you can" -- involves organizations ranging from the Midtown Ventura Community Council, to the Surfrider Foundation, to, most important in my mind, parent Fiona Bremner, who, when asked why she showed up at the school to lend a hand on a recent Saturday with her nine-year-old daughter and three-year-old son, replied simply, "I want to encourage the values of helping the community." And then Bremner and her daughter set about spreading mulch over a new garden.

Along with the garden, the improvements at Will Rogers will also eventually include bioswales. Don't worry, I didn't know what a bioswale was either, but I read about them and learned what a great, and simple, tool they are; basically a ditch planted with native and drought-tolerant plants and lined at the bottom with rocks. When the first rains come (hopefully) in autumn after our long, dry Southern California summer, the initial runoffs are heavy with all manner of, in non-scientific speak, disgusting crud -- accumulated oils, garbage, and unpronounceable chemicals that, more often than not, are washed to the sea. Bioswales help prevent this. The ditches are designed to keep the rainwater from running off quickly. It soaks into the immediate ground instead, where it can be filtered by soil and plant roots, oozing into the groundwater, if not mountain clear, at least a little less mad scientist toxic.

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But bioswales, though important, aren't the point here. What's really important is some 30 adults and a handful of students showing up at a local elementary school on a Saturday when they could have been doing something else.

Of course, this sort of thing happens all the time. I have friends who labor ceaselessly and quietly in our community, moving mountains, making our small part of the world a better place. One of these people is a family member. I can't tell you her name because she would rather be staked atop an anthill than step up on a stage. I am sure you know people like this, too. They give you faith.

I have some very small experience with community projects. When our two boys were young, the elementary school they attended decided to build a playground. Schools are not flush with funding now and they weren't flush with funding then. The call went out to the parents. We can build it if you come lend a hand. And so early on a Saturday morning I stood in a wonderfully long line, waiting to see what my job would be.

When I reached the front of the line the woman seated at the table looked up at me and asked me what skills I had and when I responded honestly, I was given a shovel. I spent the day digging misshapen post holes, which were quietly made right by a slender woman who was a finish carpenter. Men wearing tool belts watched my drunken digging silently. When I fall short in a particular skill set (often), I try to make up for it with unbridled zest. I dug post holes as if leprechauns had buried gold at the bottom of each one of them. At the end of the day the woman who given me my assignment pointedly took my shovel, and then asked me if I would be interested in helping with the playground over the long-term. And so for several years, on sporadic Saturdays, I chipped and painted and swept and picked up trash and generally indulged in menial tasks that helped keep the playground up and running without leveling it.

I mention this not to hold myself up as a shining example but to highlight how even someone with the meagerest of skills can make a contribution. I will also tell you that it felt really good to help. Sometimes our sons came and helped, too. Although it has been some years now, I can still see those bright blue Saturday mornings clear as yesterday, volunteers clambering over turrets and slides and tire swings, making one small playground a better place. It felt good just to watch the communal effort. Occasionally I was reprimanded (mildly) for doing just that. One cannot be too harsh with volunteers.

This sort of thing is not unique to our neighborhood. It happens everywhere, although it happens most often without anyone knowing. Good, quiet news and lots of it, without explosions and murders and political/religious/financial/you name it self-interest. I know this because I once wrote a book about it. Tired of headlines of terrorism, war, and corporate misdeeds, I spent six months traveling about this great country, hoping to find harbors of upstanding conscience and intent, proof that this world still rested on a quiet foundation of good deeds and community. I did.

Since you won't likely read about it on Yahoo News ("Swift and Spears in the Same Slip Dress"), I will tell you there is much work yet to be done at Will Rogers Elementary School. It's hoped that the bioswales will be finished by the end of summer. A schoolyard habitat will be planted at the beginning of next year, and from that point on the children will take care of it -- a valuable lesson for all to see. With a little help the children will also plant fruit trees, which will eventually bear healthy snacks. It is possible that one day, farther down the line, Fiona Bremner's children will find themselves in an elementary schoolyard working beside children of their own. This is how the world quietly works.

Will Rogers also said, "We can't all be heroes because somebody has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by."

I disagree.

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