Thursday, April 06, 2006

Dispatch from Ontario - California

The Ontario where I make my home these days is very different from the Ontario where I grew up and went to school. Located in San Bernardino county, forty five miles east of Los Angeles, the city of Ontario was founded in 1882 by Kingston Ontario's William and George Chaffey. The brothers' main engineering achievement in this dry, hot climate, was to bring water from neighbouring Mt. Baldy to nourish their planned citrus groves. Standing 7500 feet above the town and ten miles to the north, Mt Baldy is big and barren and usually hidden among the folds of the San Gabriel Mountain foothills, and obscured by a fine layer of smog.

My wife and girls and I live just up from the village of Mt Baldy, in an almost unpopulated National Forest of dangerous roads, mountain cottages and yucca plants. Descending into the valley below, we come across a handful of lemon and orange trees, and that's all that"s left of the citrus plantations that flourished for a century after the Chaffey's set foot here. In the 1980s, cheap land, accessibility via several freeways to Los Angeles, and the virtue of not being Los Angeles, saw the area quickly change from a rural to suburban environment. Today, several real estate booms later, the city has a population of about 160,000; a modest three bedroom house runs at about $500,000 US.

Ontario is now home to the Ontario Mills Shopping Mall, one of the largest malls in North America, and to some of the USA's largest manufacturing and shipping companies, including Toyota's North American Parts and Logistics Distribution plant. Ontario also has some of the worst air quality in the USA: in 2004, the EPA found the San Bernardino-Riverside area had the worst particulate air pollution in the United States. It is also home to many conservative Amercian families. As I drive my daughter to school, down from our perch a mile above the town, we descend into a clearly visible cloud of smog funneled in from the coastal cities, Los Angeles and all points east. As we drive on in the name of a better standard of living, we jostle among the cars and read the bumper stickers that identify their static contents - "Proud Parents of Upland High Honor Roll Student,” "Fueled by Jesus" , and "We support the troops," to name a few.

Our eldest daughter is a freshman at the Evangelical Christian high school here. Depending on your outlook, the school is either squarely focused on fundamentals or dangerously narrow minded. We don't share the school's convictions, in fact they freak me out, but along with a small number of other interloping parents with kids here, we're here making do with a difficult situation. A campus of 300 students, this was the only high school in the area that didn't completely intimidate our shy daughter and that we could come close to affording. By contrast, the local public high school has 3600 students and three full-time police officers. Rebecca's alternative school has lots of positives going for it- small classes, a dress code, civility in and out of the classroom, no signs of drugs or teenage pregnancies, and some notion of religiosity. There are good reasons why schools like it have been on the rise in this part of the world.

Rebecca has made two good friends, one girl of Indonesian descent, and one from India. She and her friends are doing well academically. At night, as they text message and phone up answers to what I see as mostly rote-learning exercises, they're oblivious to any possible side effects of the line of Creationist, Zionist conviction that runs through every subject, and particularly Science, Geography, and Literature. US military expansion into the Middle East is also clearly supported by the staff. Even art class is clearly ideological, the teacher propagating a style of Christian Constructivism. And in Bible, our daughter's current project has her profiling a Christian missionary. Any Christian missionary will do - which is to say, no Catholics.

Five miles east, and further up the foothills towards the mountains, stands Claremont, a city of another stripe. It's a town of less than 40,000 people, clustered around a small core of cool coffee houses and shops, and perhaps more significantly, the Claremont Colleges. The first of these, Pomona College, was established in 1887 - right around the time that the Chaffey brothers were setting up neighbouring Ontario. The mandate was to here was to create a school that established something fundamentally different - an Ivy League liberal college for the west coast. The school's founders succeeded. Today there are a handful of mostly contiguous, compartmentalized collegiate campuses here, all with low enrollment and high academic standards.

Adjacent to the Colleges is the office for the Prison Library Project, a charitable foundation formed to fulfill prisoners' requests for books. To fulfill her community service requirement for school, Rebecca volunteers a few times a month here, packing up suitable books from the prisoners' requests. She's found many, many letters asking for a dictionary - the most popular book by far. A few prisoners explicitly ask for the biggest, heaviest hard cover dictionaries possible, for reasons that have little to do with edification. But judging by the language of these letters, for the most part there are lots of requests because there are lots of prisoners here, and a lot of them are functionally illiterate.

Rebecca likes the look of the Claremont colleges, and now is making noises about going to a school that gets her prepared for a similar place. After seeing the Evangelical school up close up, I"m glad, but not completely relieved to hear this. There must be good reasons why my old, decrepit liberal values are no longer holding up in a New World Order, and I dont expect her to be able to effectively take ideological cover in her world.

What I’m looking for is a third choice, schools where self-identity isn’t set in stone. And this may be too much to ask of any institution, not just an American one. Still, I imagine that a school here or elsewhere, where religiosity is nourished but remains ineffable would be something to behold. And I imagine that such a place would really help to prepare my child for a rapidly changing world.

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