The bewilderment of high school incites a range of afflictions, and I was negotiating more of them than I could manage when I was assigned to the English class taught by Bobby Rowell in Fontana, California in the early 1970s.
(Hallway photo from Facebook Group, FOHI Graduates)
At that time, the Klan was still active in Fontana, and even in 1980, an African American colleague of mine at the University of California, Riverside refused to come to my wedding for fear of intimidation by people of like sympathies. The Hell’s Angels were around the town in those days, and for that reason I was not allowed to go to the A & W restaurant/hamburger stand on Sierra Avenue where they tended to loiter. People said it was a tough town.
(Photo of Van’s Cocktail Lounge from Facebook Group, Fontana History and Culture)
It was a town full of immigrants: Slovenians, Italians, the Irish. On my mother’s side, a community of Finns. On my father’s, Germans. It was a town full of hardworking people. The steel workers liked a cold beer after work in the parking lot of the liquor store. The WWII veterans liked a shot or two of whiskey at the American Legion. My father and a few of my uncles were well-known in the local bars, and my friends and I would laugh about the bars and churches scattered around town.
Now I see that many small towns had the same blend of the sacred and the scurrilous, but somehow, we felt singular. Fontana’s reputation, though, extended beyond its borders. In Janet Fitch’s 2006 novel, Paint it Black (now made into a film), the main character drives from Los Angeles to Twenty-nine Palms, and Fontana is mentioned:
“Easy enough to die in Fontana, you could lie down on the tracks and be divided neatly, top and bottom. Or you could just pick a fight in a beer bar, expending the smallest insult, and let someone else do the job, bashing your skull against the concrete curb of the parking lot” (348).(Photo of Kaiser Steel Blast Furnace from Facebook Group, Fontana History and Culture)
The hundreds of stories I heard growing up about someone getting into a fight in a bar resonate like the sounds of a guitar in my imagination. The echoes followed us through the hallways going from class to class. Finding our way, learning to conceive of new pathways for ourselves required help, and teachers were key figures as we navigated the changing culture and the possibilities. I had a history of excellent teachers, starting with Mrs. Shipp in the first grade, who made sure I had as many books to read as I wanted, moving on in middle school (then called junior high school) to the counter-culture interesting woman who didn’t shave her legs, Miss Cutler, and the entertaining sentence-diagramming Mrs. Hughes. The happy trend continued with Mr. Dison, a Texan with a wry wit, and then Mr. Rowell from Arkansas, also a man of great warmth and humor who couldn’t help but become friends with Mr. Dison. They were wonderful conversing with their elegant southern accents. I couldn’t have been more fortunate. (Photo of Janyth Dison and Bobby Rowell from FOHI Reunion 2012 )
Mr. Rowell had been recruited with the use of dazzling verbal advertisements about Fontana, California. It was near the ocean, they said, it was beautiful, it had stunning views, they said. I suppose they were almost right, despite everything to the contrary. For those of us who grew up there, and from a certain eye beholding, the beauty is in our memories and in the memories of our parents and others who helped to settle the town in the halcyon days when it was characterized by walnut groves, citrus orchards, chicken ranches, and hog farms.
(Photo of mountains taken from Facebook Group, Fontana History and Culture)
The San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountain ranges create a sublime view to the north of town, both in their occasional snow on the heights and their autumn purple and blue shadows spilling down the slopes onto the growing little town, which started in 1913 (incorporated in 1952). Kaiser Steel, Inc., the largest steel mill on the West Coast during WWII, altered the agricultural nature of the town, even as it provided jobs for locals and the steady flux of immigrants from all over the nation. Mike Davis, who was born there and went on to become a well-known writer and scholar, calls Fontana the “Junkyard of Dreams,” in a chapter from his book City of Quartz.
There in the junkyard of dreams at what was then the only high school in town, Mr. Rowell introduced us to some of the great literature of the world. We read Crime and Punishment, The Stranger, The Metamorphosis, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird and other classics. We talked about the characters, their dilemmas, their anguish. We experimented with creative writing, coming up with poems and stories. I was heartened by his inimitable low-key style, his calm demeanor. He seemed ever ready to be amused by something, and his class was never one to dread or avoid. It was in his class that I became aware of writing as a life direction. In the sometimes callous and brutal experiences of high school, Bobby’s class provided a place to think, a place to develop a larger perspective. (Photo of chickens taken from Facebook Group, Fontana History and Culture)
I call him “Bobby” now. A few of us who were in his classes in high school still gather for poetry readings, barbecues, musical events. After a career in the Fontana Unified School District, first as a teacher and then as a counselor, he retired and, for a time, spent half the year in California, the other half at his home in Arkansas. My husband (also a past student of Bobby’s) and I visited him there in 2008 where we had a memorable day riding on his boat. At the edge of the lake, we watched some eagles in their nest, and in the early evening we had dinner on the porch overlooking the lake. Bobby also helped me to catch my first fish, a catfish.
Teachers like Bobby Rowell were vital to those of us who needed our gifts to be noticed, called out, and invigorated. We moved through the maze of social conflicts and painful realizations, not at all aware of how much we needed insightful teachers, people to steer us in an optimistic direction (I forgot to mention that Bobby was also my Driver’s Education teacher). To find a good mentor, a good teacher, is to find a prize.
Despite his difficulties from Parkinson’s disease, Bobby and Kenlyn attended a recent poetry reading, which included me as one of the featured poets. I was honored by his presence, someone who has known me since I was sixteen years old, and who first introduced me to some of the great poetry of the world.
Here’s to you, Bobby Rowell, a teacher with an eagle eye for irony and for meaning. Thank you.
Fitch, Janet. Paint it Black. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2006.