"When I come up the hill, it's like home," said Devon Johnson, one in a class of 10 graduating seniors of Oak Grove School. She has been making that trek for the past nine years, more than half her life. The hill covers 150 acres of high ground in the Meiners' Oak district of the Ojai Valley.
Devon chose to come to Oak Grove after attending a two-week summer session. Then each year she renewed her option to return. About to graduate, she finds it a little difficult to summarize what the school has given her. "I feel safe here," she said thoughtfully, "I can be me."
In the fall she will go to UC Santa Cruz to study developmental psychology and urban studies. She thinks one day she might counsel inner-city youngsters, or work with the disabled.
The inner city is familiar territory for Malika Browne. "When I came here six years ago out of West Philadelphia," she said, "I was very tense, anxious, bordering on violence. For the first time I was in an all-white environment, away from my family. I found a sense of caring and safety I haven't known previously."
"Oak Grove," Malika said, "has fostered in me a strong sense of pride about who I am," a sentiment echoed by other minority students, who comprise half the senior class.
Oak Grove was founded by Jiddu Krishnamurti, the Indian-born philosopher who died in Ojai in 1986, at age 90. Krishnamurti was admired by personalities as diverse as George Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley and Henry Miller. His adherents have compared him to Socrates, the ancient philosopher who gave his name to the Socratic method. But Krishnamurti insisted that he had no method, even though his 20-odd books are permeated with questions of education.
"What I am interested in is to awaken the mind," he once wrote. "We say that the mind of the child can be kept alive through knowledge, and therefore we pour in knowledge which only dulls the mind."
For Krishnamurti, a complete education meant teaching students in a context of developing a total human being, one who is happy, sane, and unafraid to ask questions or hear the answers. Questioning and examining everything is central to the educational philosophy at the school.
"This is the first school I attended," said Rachel Tibbits, another of the 10 seniors graduating tomorrow, "where I haven't been condemned by other students for wanting to learn, for wanting good grades."
Rachel has spent only the past year at Oak Grove, having attended high school in Germany the year before and another private school in California before that. The experience gives her several points of comparison. "The kids here actually encourage each other to do well, to study," she said. "There's no pressure to be social at all. I like the feeling that education is important."
The atmosphere in class on a recent day the week before graduation is very serious, more reminiscent of a university seminar than of high school. A visitor to class is struck by the naturalness with which students greet him. Some sit quietly around the table. Others are sprawled, occasionally get up, stretch and walk about.
Lee Nichols conducts a course called "Work in Depth," in which the seniors discuss texts ranging from the Old Testament and Montaigne's essays, to the "Joy Luck Club," a contemporary novel by Chinese-American author Amy Tan.
Nichols never lectures, just asks questions and directs traffic, allowing the more quiet students to participate.
"At first I hardly ever talked in class," Anne Gustafson said, "and it never occured to me that I could, because I never did in my other school. . . . It didn't occur to me, while I was going there, that there was a purpose in learning things."
In chemistry, which many students find difficult, Larry Johnson, a former lawyer turned science teacher, tries to make sure that the three students in the class really understand what happens to bromide when it is used as an oxidizing agent. The teacher gets a bit confused and student Rachel helps out.
Johnson doesn't mind or cover up his mistake; he simply said this is an easy problem to confuse, which makes the students feel better about chemistry. Johnson asks Rachel to take over the class and ask questions of her classmates. This, he said later, achieves two results: it prevents Rachel, who really has mastered the material, from dominating the discussion, and it also gives her the experience of teaching.
In David Howard's English class, the students discuss a poem by Howard Nemerov, writing to his son about education. The middle-age poet is wondering that "The world is full of mostly invisible things."
"Are you questioning those mostly invisible things, David," asked Malika suddenly, "now that you, too, are facing mid-life crisis?" The whole class laughs, along with the teacher.
With a student body of only 30 from preschool age to grade 12, Oak Grove fosters a family atmosphere. Parents who live in the valley are closely involved in all the activities; some act as house parents for the boarders.