“So, what are you doing here?” Brianna Vasquez asked me as I followed her through a misty courtyard to first period physics. Brianna, captain of the Tomales High cheer team, has a quick laugh and a friendly smile. I felt instantly at ease, and was glad she would be my guide during my visit to Tomales.
“Well, Tomales High is the northernmost high school in Marin, and Tam is the furthest south. I thought it’d be interesting to see how we’re different,” I said.
“Cool,” Brianna replied. But she had no idea how different her school was from Tam. After an hour and a half of driving up Highway 101, through ranches in Petaluma, and past a frosty field with perky lambs nibbling on Christmas trees, I arrived at Tomales High School, a modern concrete building in the center of a cow pasture. I’d only been there for a half hour, but I already knew this corner of Marin was much different than ours.
Brianna and I entered the steamy science classroom that looked pretty similar to the ones in Lower Keyser at Tam. I sat next to two tired looking senior girls. A tall boy in a gray sweater, unzipped fly, and grimy baseball cap, who was later introduced to me as John Dalmolin, stumbled over to our table and took a seat, saying “Well, he took my seat so that’s why I’m sittin’ here.” None of us replied.
“So, what do you guys do for fun around here?” I asked, a question I’d been dying to pose since I arrived in Tomales at 7:30 a.m and couldn’t find a single cup of coffee. Instead of a plethora of over-priced boutiques and gourmet cafés like in Mill Valley, I discovered one block with a few shops that wouldn’t open till noon and a children’s playground. The town felt spacious, surrounded by beautiful pastures and sweeping views of Tomales Bay, but I was curious as to how high school kids entertained themselves in a Marin so different from that of Tam students.
The blond girl across from me yawned and replied quietly, “We go to Petaluma, go shopping there, hang out with-”
“Actually, that’s what the gay people do,” John interrupted with surprising earnestness.
“Really John? Then what do you do?” the girl retorted in annoyance.
“Hunt. Build stuff. Poach.” John smiled.
Before I could ask what exactly he poached, our conversation was interrupted as Brianna whipped around and exclaimed, “Check out this iPhone I got! Isn’t it cool?’’ She handed me the phone.
“Yeah sweet,” I said examining the phone to see if it was different than the average iPhone. It wasn’t, and it was refreshing to realize Brianna actually appreciated the phone. I thought of Tam kids who love to curse AT&T satellites that take an extra two minutes to beam a text from orbit.
Suddenly John bellowed angrily to someone across the room, causing the girls at my table to jump. “SV can’t hold a football when there’s any water involved! …not that they can when there isn’t water.”
“SV is Saint Vincent’s, the rich kids,” Brianna filled me in. “We always beat them. They’re like our main rivals. Our last game against them is this weekend and its supposed to rain. Kinda sucks.”
“You guys are pretty into football here?” I asked, trying to remember the last time my classmates discussed the weather’s effect on the outcome of a football game.
“Oh yeah. Like, the whole town shuts down if there’s a big game. How’s your school?”
I froze, trying to remember the last game I attended three years prior. “Uhh… I think we’re doing well.”
“How do you not know?” Brianna asked, stunned.
“Dude, our school didn’t even have cheerleaders last year,” I admitted. I would later learn from my second guide that if a Tomales student doesn’t know how the football team is doing, they either “live under a rock or something is wrong.”
“Alright class, let’s talk some more about centrifugal force,” the teacher, Mrs. Righetti, said standing up and smiling. Mrs. Righetti seemed not to mind her students joking and shouting. She then began a long analogy that had to do with NASCAR racing.
“NASCAR’s boring as hell!” John screamed. Then he caught my eye and said, “They say rednecks like NASCAR, but I don’t. I enjoy it when they crash, maybe.”
Future Farmers of America
A shrill bell rang and I found the tall dark haired senior named Marcos Gonzalez I would shadow for second period. I followed him through the gleaming white hallways to the rows of red lockers that everyone seemed to be using.
“Tomales is nice,” Marcos told me. “It’s small enough that everyone knows each other, and classes are never bigger than twenty-five. You get a lot of one-on-one time with teachers. Scheduling sucks though, since the school is so small there’s only one class per subject. I had to go into calculus without taking pre-calc.”
Marcos paused to reach over three other students and throw his binders in the locker. He retrieved a navy-blue felt coat and black slacks.
“Next I have a practice FFA (Future Farmers of America) meeting you can watch, but I have to change into these clothes. You can go over there with Brianna if you want.” He pointed to a group of boys wearing the evidently popular camouflage hunting sweaters, baseball caps, and work boots. I saw Brianna among them and hurried over, wondering momentarily why the boys looked sort of proportionately different from the guys at Tam. Then I realized they weren’t sagging their royal blue Levi’s 501s.
The FFA meeting proved to be the most striking contrast to culture at Tam, even more so than Tomales’s bovine neighbors and enthusiasm for high school sports. The FFA is a national organization that helps students grow into adults, become better leaders, and be successful in their careers through agricultural education.
I entered the packed science classroom and beheld the row of seven well-dressed FFA officers standing before the assembly. They each wore the blue felt jackets with their FFA title in gold lettering, and were marked by fancy wooden plaques that read “Treasurer,” “President,” or some other official position. The officers then took their seats and began a long, scripted introduction to the meeting:
“The meeting will come to order. We are now holding a special contest meeting of the Sonoma Chapter of the FFA. Mr. Vice-President, are all officers at their stations?” questioned the president, a senior girl in three-inch stilettos. She sounded a bit like a robotic attendance lady.
“I shall call the roll of officers, determine if they are at their stations and report back to you, Madam President,” said Marcos, who was the vice-president. Marcos then focused his eyes on the back of the room and inquired, “The Sentinel?”
“Standing by the door,” reported a short brown-haired boy. He sprang from his chair and stood like a soldier.
“Your duties there?” asked Marcos.
“Through this door pass many friends of the FFA. It is my duty to see that the door is open to our friends at all times, and that they are welcome. I care for the meeting room and paraphernalia. I strive to keep the room comfortable and assist the president in maintaining order,” recited the Sentinel stiffly.
This roll call carried on through all seven officers, until the president rapped her gavel and announced that the meeting would begin. The meeting lasted approximately three minutes, during which the assembly discussed the success of “old business,” chiefly the recent parent dinner party fundraiser. After this, the meeting was adjourned and the officers launched into another extended ending script. Then a tall man in a flannel shirt, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat, who I assume was a teacher advisor, suggested the officers repeat the process.
“Why are they doing it again?” I whispered to the freshman with a buzz cut sitting next to me.
“They’re getting ready for a competition against other FFA chapters,” he said. Before I could ask him more about this, he revealed some slightly shocking personal information. “I used to be an officer for the underclassmen, but I got kicked off because I mooned this kid during a meeting. So are you a sophomore?”
After the FFA meeting, Marcos took me to the steel drums (an alternative to band) room where I met Matthew Erbst, a redheaded senior with a mullet, and Juan Avalos, a tall Latino senior. Steel drums practice was cancelled, so the class of ten busied themselves with quiet activities. Except the freshman who got fired from being an FFA officer; he whipped out a bass guitar and proceeded to reproduce Sublime’s “40oz to Freedom” several times. Juan and Matthew were curious about Tam, and were most surprised by the large selection of electives and honors classes we have. They, in turn, filled me in on some qualities unique to Tomales.
“Let me ask you this,” Matthew said looking up from his computer screen and holding up one finger, “Do you have senior projects?”
“No, what are those?”
Matthew’s eyes lit up and he smoothed his mullet. “It’s a really hard graduation requirement. We have to do something big, like an internship, or build something, and write eight pages about it. I am engineering and building a windmill from scratch to power my well.”
“That sounds cool,” I said, “but what’s a well?”
“For water?” The boys gave me inquisitive looks.
“Yeah okay, we’re not like you city people, our water has to come from somewhere. And no, we don’t have to pump it, it’s powered by electricity and comes through pipes in the house,” Matthew explained emphatically, making erratic gestures with his pale hands.
“Oh yeah!” I said apologetically. I felt like an idiot because I didn’t realize wells still existed in Marin. “You must be pretty smart to do that.”
“He absorbs it through his mullet!” Juan said punching Matthew in the shoulder. Matthew laughed in agreement.
“What’s it like to live on a ranch?” I asked the boys, who all had at least a few cattle and lots of land.
“It’s pretty cool,” said Marcos smiling, “We can do whatever we want because cops never come out there.”
“Living on a ranch is much better than in a city,” added Juan as he rocked his plastic chair back against the beige wall. “I lived in Petaluma for a bit, couldn’t stand it.”
“What do you do for fun?” I asked again, hoping they could provide an answer that didn’t involve sexual orientation.
“Well, we go to each other’s houses sometimes. Watch football. Have barn parties,” explained Juan.
“What? Barn parties?”
“Yeah,” Juan chuckled, “basically you get a barn that’s far away from the road, then you make a fire, set up some hay bales around it-”
“Or you could drive a pickup truck next to the fire and sit in those,” interrupted Matthew.
“Sure,” continued Juan, “then you just hang out and listen to music. Some people drink beer.”
“Aw that’s legit. I wish we had barns,” I said, thinking of how my peers would most likely enjoy a large indoor space with fire, alcohol, trucks, and music in the middle of a ranch miles away from the nearest law enforcement.
“Besides just hanging out we also like to hunt and fish. Some people poach,” said Juan.
“What do people poach?” I asked, thinking along the lines of elephants or big cats.
“Crows. Rabbits. Squirrels. Once the whole football team chased a rabbit down and killed it with their cleats.”
“Oh. Kay. Wow. Do you guys go cow tipping too while you’re at it?” I responded. The boys started cracking up.
“Actually it’s impossible. The cows just wake up!” said Juan to my disappointment.
“Yeah,” added Matthew, “and they’re really heavy.”
“You guys have off campus lunch?” I asked Marcos as we headed down the hallway.
“Yeah!” Marcos said. I covered my laugh.
“Where is there a place to buy food?”
“We can make it to Petaluma if we have chill fifth periods. It takes like 30 minutes to get there and back.”
We passed a long line of students with cafeteria trays, getting lunch from a buffet. It was a classic high school cafeteria scene. I half expected to see the Mean Girls getting their low-fat yogurt.
After lunch it was time for me to bid farewell to my new friends at Tomales High, snap some last minute pictures, and head home. As I wound back down Highway One, I reflected on the differences between the two poles of Marin.
Tamalpais and Tomales are two very different schools with highly unique cultures. Tam kids come from the urban land of San Francisco where college, material possessions, and 4.0’s are the main goals. Tomales students, on the other hand, thrive in a town that reminds us of Marin’s roots. Hands-on learning through their senior projects, tangible responsibilities like raising livestock or designing tools, and work experience like that offered through the FFA reflect the core values of the Tomales community.
I was perhaps struck most by the huge influence that location can have over a school and its students, enough so to make schools only two hours apart as different as night and day. Different location determines a school’s funding, the students’ favorite pastimes, their cultural values, political views, the quality of the teaching staff, and ultimately the type of young people produced and the opportunities they will have later in life.
The balance of city and country culture make Marin County much more complex than residents on either end may have assumed.