Thursday, June 14, 2007


Giraffe riding bicycle, Portland, June 2007

PORTLAND ALWAYS THROWS something unexpected at you. After having spent so many years in Berkeley, this is something we appreciate, Lindsey and I. The unexpected doesn't seem to materialize in Berkeley any more, on our frequent visits there; perhaps we're simply inured to it there; more likely Berkeley has in fact settled into a sort of bourgeois complacency in all its classes, from the homeless to the yuppie. But Portland...

I've often though that if I had to settle in an American city I'd choose Portland, and not only because Giovanna and her family are there. Staying with them, in a bungalow under the heavy trees on Northwest Eighth Street, daily life is calm and friendly; the neighbors are friendly and conversational; a favorite barber shop, the post office, an interesting used book outlet run by the library, a Macintosh specialist, and decent cafés are within easy walking distance.

If we want to go further afield, a ten-minute walk takes us to the free lightrail trip across the Willamette to downtown Portland; a free streetcar takes us further into the new neighborhoods to the north. These free zones aren't huge, it must be admitted; but they break up your walks, give you a rest at the end of the day, and offer protection if it's raining. But it isn't raining, in general, not on our visits—I don't know why that is. Today, like yesterday and the day before, is cool and breezy, its sunlight filtered through high hazy clouds.

We're here primarily to visit, and it's been a special visit, with two commencement ceremonies. Simon, nearly 18, has graduated from high school; Francesca, 14, is entering high school. When I answered the barber yesterday, who'd asked what schools they went to, Boy, the barber said, They sure know how to pick their schools. And indeed we are impressed, Lindsey and I, with these schools—nearly as much as we are with the kids themselves.

Simon's been going to Trillium Charter School, a twelve-year school graduating thirteen students this year. The ceremony was last Saturday afternoon—we arrived just in time, having driven from Grants Pass—and it was memorable. Held in the flag-draped Grand Ballroom of Norse Hall—who knew Faroe Islands had their own flag?—and featuring the school drumming ensemble, which particularly interested us—since Simon is an enthusiastic member. (That's Simon losing his hat in the blurry video I just uploaded to YouTube).

West African drumming, ultimate Frisbee, modular mathematics: those seem to have been Simon's curricular enthusiasms this last semester. On the side he's been busy composing: I wrote about in my previous post here a couple of weeks ago. Alas, the quintet for piano and strings he'd written to be played during graduation exercises wasn't performed; one of the musicians couldn't make the date. Simon took this in stride. What a graceful, good-hearted young man!

A couple of days later it was Franny's turn. She was one of fifty "graduates"—I still can't get used to hearing that word applied to eight-graders, but maturation is clearly no longer on the schedule I knew fifty-odd years ago. Her school is bigger, and a standard public school, not a charter school. But Metropolitan Learning Center is no ordinary school: one of the earliest public "alternative" schools, it encourages a communitarian attitude among its students similar to that we noticed at Trillium.

Here the ceremonies began with another unusual band—eight or ten marimbas, from small trebles to a very deep niine- or ten-key bass, played by kids in all sizes, and played well. Then came the introductions, the teacher appreciations, the certificate awards—Fran being voted "most likely to appear on Saturday Night Live," and it wouldn't surprise any of us if it were to happen: she's pretty funny.

The march of the graduates was not "Pomp and Circumstance," or even the Iolanthe march I recall from my own graduation back in 'Fifty-Two. Instead, the music teacher who'd presided over the marimbas stepped in from the outside corridor, along with another guy on trombone, and they played a tailgate New Orleans-inspired stroll of their own, counterpointing the banter between teachers and students on stage.

* * *

We've been eating at a few Portland spots, in between watching generally satisfactory Cubs games on television, and dipping into the always fascinating books GIovanna and Pavel keep stashed in various corners of the house. But those reports will have to wait another day.

No comments: