Finding a common thread at Prairie Union School

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September 2016- As I kid I lived in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, along Marine View Drive.  Wealth didn’t afford us a view of Lake Michigan living across the street from Margate Park. No, our benefactor was a lawsuit-driven housing equity program for low-income families.

The neighborhood was much different then than now.  The Skid Row of Argyle Street was slowly being transformed by Asian immigrants opening stores. Shop owners emerged every morning with brooms to perform a daily  ritual of sweeping up garbage around sleeping drunks. Walking to school involved crossing Sheridan Road to avoid the stench of stale alcohol and the lurking men at the strip club. As kids, we stopped at the Jewish deli  to fish crunchy, cool dill pickles from a big barrel. There was a butcher shop with meat hanging in the window.

Away from the parks and beaches, a potpourri of skin colors and languages flourished in apartment buildings small and large.  I didn’t speak the language of the Hispanic family receiving a ceremonial suckling pig on holidays, neatly tucked on its back in a cardboard box delivered to their door.  I didn’t share the religion of the Irish family who seemed to grow despite hosting intermittent, boisterous wakes. The quiet Chinese family who walked my classmate Kathy back and forth to school was more polite and reserved than my big, rugged family could ever pretend to be.

What we did have in common was school.  We all trudged to John T. McCutcheon Elementary School every morning and learned to write in cursive, speak proper grammatical English, perform basic math functions, study geography and history.

Decades later, as I stand in the restored Prairie Union Schoolhouse at American Prairie Reserve, the view is so familiar in a place so faraway that I find myself tumbling back to my youth. It doesn’t seem likely that I would have something in common with a child sitting at a desk in a one-room schoolhouse in what would have been outer space to me back then.  prairieschoolclassroom

American Prairie Reserve’s restoration of the Prairie Union School includes an audio interpreter.  It’s a little jarring to press a button and hear a human voice over a speaker when you’re in the middle of what you hope is nowhere.  But the narrative, the objects in the room, and the view tell a compelling story that is more relevant today than ever.  As I listened to the narrator, I looked at the prairie expanding away from the window like a growing universe.  I glanced back at the map of Asia, wondering what a ranch kid felt like looking at the exotic planet beyond view.

prairieschoolmapWhen you live in the inner city of a massive city and your family is poor, the schoolroom is a place that will make or break your future. You have no more access to services and benefits of the developed world than a ranch kid living 100 miles from a town. You have no wealth, power or authority behind you. Your only hope for any kind of future is to get a good education and move upward and out.

Like any ranch kid, you have to be able to gaze out the window and dream of a different place to keep studying. You have to learn to walk a gauntlet to school- maybe it’s prairie weather and rattlesnakes, or maybe social problems and crime that plague cities.

Today, this schoolroom looks quaint, a well-restored photo opp if you’re a hurried and thoughtless tourist looking to populate social media pages.  Stay for awhile, though.  Think about your life past and present.  Listen to the story the building and objects and view are telling you.    Think about the state and role of education today in our electronically-entangled world.  And know that now, as then, to kids all over the planet, education means everything to our future.

The best kind of graffitti- temporary and beautiful.  This signature includes what I believe is balsamroot flower.  

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My prairie selfie:  Looking outward to a world as far away to a ranch kid as it is to an inner city kid.

Getting out there in outer Montana

Speeding away from a busy life to peaceful prairie that’s all sky and wildlife.

APRWelcomeAfter speeding away to a special assignment that includes social media, my life and my blog have been left in a dust cloud, pressed flat in the gravel like dehydrated roadkill. I worked my old job and my new job for five weeks until my work got transferred. Days never really ended. I forgot things. I needed everything to slow down.  I needed a break.

And there is the crazy, polarizing presidential campaign, the racism nightmare, terrorism. The national stress level is crushing on top of too little sleep/too much work.

Thankfully, I had long ago set up a trip to Montana to visit American Prairie Reserve and Yellowstone National Park.  After the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, I wanted to visit some refuges to – you know, take public land back.  Back from those cowboy hat Trojan horses funded by the resource extraction industries. The next few posts are about this trip.

What with my work-squashed neurons, I did a marginal job packing, and had to fill in a few things at Missoula.  Mostly, I had enough or maybe a little much.  Why I brought 3 pounds of cheese is a mystery. Simple math and consideration of cheese’s gastrointestinal effects would have fixed that.

I relax driving long distances and watching scenery slide by.  It’s meditation for a former Midwestern road tripper. By the time I reached Buffalo Camp at APR’s Sun Prairie unit, my brain had emptied, and I’d heard enough farm radio to forget about the world.  And I agreed with the greeting on the sign.  It was good.

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On cue, the Welcome Wagon bison showed me the location of my tent platform.  I didn’t ask him to stay and fluff my camp pillow, but he seemed willing to linger.

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Don’t worry- the deepest part is hidden on the left.

Of course, the first thing I decided to do was to cut my wrist with a knife.  Because too much crazy going on. For the first time in my knife-wielding life, I reached one hand over the other to grab something and neatly sliced my skin with the upward pointed tip.

The wound wasn’t terrible, though it was a bloody mess and will leave a scar.  It doesn’t really look like I tried to off myself:  I would get a D- for the effort. But if that tip had been 1/4 inch lower and an inch to the right- well, that would have been pretty dicey so far away from help. I’ve been there, long ago in northern Minnesota, with knee slices, broken ankle, appendicitis, and nearest medical care 45 miles away.  This one was easy, something pressure and gauze could fix once I decided to quit dripping blood on the tent and do something about it.

bridgebuffalocamptrailFinally, after setting up my temporary abode, I could stretch my legs walking out to the prairie dog town across the creek.  I could watch the prairie sunset and moonrise and curl up well-insulated in my sleeping bag, ready to start exploring the next day.

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The Harvest Moon is almost upon us…