Be True To Your School

by Ann M. Colford & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & chool reunions can be painful or wonderful. Someday, a social scientist will come up with an equation that factors in the size of the school, the distance in time and space that one has traveled, and some intangible measure of belonging to determine exactly what the experience will be. Till then, we'll have to take our chances.

Juanita Rodriguez doesn't have to take a chance, though; she knows her reunion is wonderful. Growing up in the Colville reservation town of Keller, she attended the one-room Keller School for eight years, from 1943-51. Last weekend, she and about 50 other alums gathered at the Keller Community Center for an all-class reunion.

"Everybody was glad to see each other," she says. "It was really good to hear all the stories, especially from the older people, telling us where the first old school was, and of when they went to high school in Wilbur and had to be boarded out there. To me, that was my highlight, hearing of the older history."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & ccording to a history of the town compiled by Darlene Morava's eighth-grade students in 1966, Keller began in 1898 when the southern half of the Colville Reservation was opened up for mining claims. Prospectors swarmed the area, staking claims to the gold and silver in the hills up above the San Poil River. The first school went up in 1903, followed by another larger building a few years later. At first, the school in town served only the children of white miners and merchants; when the reservation was opened to homesteading in 1916, Indian students were admitted to the school as well.

One student from those early years was Lula Aubertin, who attended Keller School from 1924-33. She's 88 now and has lived near Keller her whole life; at the reunion on Saturday, she recalled stories of growing up on Manilla Creek.

"I lived about five miles from Keller," she says. "There was a trail over the hill, and I rode horseback to school. It was probably about third grade that I started riding." Her mother would rent a place in town for the winter during some years, she says, and other years she stayed with an aunt and uncle in town. "But when the weather was good, I rode. There was a barn in town where I'd keep my horse, then I'd walk up the hill to the school."

Riding horseback over the hills to school wasn't always a carefree, idyllic experience, she recalls. "I used to get frightened. I went by an old mining cabin, and it was kind of spooky. I imagined all kinds of things would come out of there. And there were stories about cougars -- one killed a girl up in Okanogan. So I would sing and make a lot of noise to keep cougars away. One of the teachers, she heard this singing and wondered where it came from, so she came out to check, and it was just me, singing as I came down the hill."

When asked how she responds to kids today complaining about how they get to school, Lula just laughs.

Although Juanita's school days came a generation after Lula's, after the town of Keller moved to higher ground, her journey to school was no easy stroll, either: "My brother Jimmie and I, we'd walk across the water of Jack Creek itself, then we could cross over and get to the school from his grandmother's place. In the winter, if it was really bad, we couldn't even walk to school."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & fter reminiscing about the school and the teachers -- "The teachers we had, they were good and they spent a lot of time with you, so it was fun to learn from them," Juanita says -- talk turns to broader memories of growing up on the reservation. The stories recall listening to grandparents who still spoke their native language, going hunting and fishing and berrying in the woods, and digging for roots when the camas was in bloom. Keller, on the east side of the Colville Reservation, remains one of the remotest parts of Washington state, accessible only by the Keller-Wilbur ferry or by a long, overland circuit through Republic or Coulee Dam. Many alums have stayed in the area, despite declines in fishing, logging and mining, resources that helped put food on the table.

As part of the fabric of the community, the school is woven into the memories of people like Lula and Juanita and so many others. It's the place where friends met and formed bonds that continue today. Ultimately, the important stories are the ones about people and the relationships that form the bedrock of community. The history of Grand Coulee Dam becomes a story of family and town rather than a story of public versus private power: Grandpa lost his land to the flood, so we had to move; the salmon stopped coming up the San Poil, so our Salmon Days festival didn't happen anymore.

The one-room Keller School may no longer exist in the physical world, but it's a meaningful thread that continues to bind together a community of people.