California has a rich and varied history, with colorful rogues, crafty villains and complicated characters who built the state’s still-astounding water, power, port and highway infrastructure. Real people. Real places.
So why was the state’s principal exhibit space for its history, the poorly funded and poorly housed California Museum in Sacramento, showcasing an exhibit on the cartoon characters in “Peanuts”? Too late if that’s your idea of important state history; the exhibit closed Jan. 3. But if you missed it, there’s the next irrelevant piece of curation on display up until September: a show on everyone’s favorite nag, the racehorse California Chrome. Not exactly history since the horse is still racing.
In classrooms like the ones in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta where I worked, California history is but a blip on the radar. The current California State Framework for History and Social Sciences relegates the story of California’s past to the fourth grade, and it is still largely taught using hidebound and uninteresting methods.
The most infamous of these is the technique by which the dubious contributions of Junipero Serra and the Franciscan padres are reinforced, with students choosing a mission to write a report about and build a model of. The mission project has always been there, at least in the living memory of those who grew up in our state. It has become so ingrained that it has even become a commercial industry with kits to get kids started.
I escaped the mission-building project, thanks to an enlightened teacher in Mill Valley who took us instead to places of moment and significance in town and encouraged other adventures to engage our rich local and state history where it happened. I recommend that alternative to other teachers, strapped with dwindling funds, but usually able to organize a parent caravan to the more substantial, more real resources in every town and county in California.
The state has more than 500 designated historical sites – from its missions and lighthouses to abandoned Chinatowns and the mansions of the rich and famously dead turned over by their heirs to the state. These wondrous haunted places, some still much as they were when history actually happened there, are often staffed by enthusiastic volunteers deeply knowledgeable about the state’s colorful truths and timetables.
These are places replete with tales of first humans living off the land, intrepid vaqueros, shaggy mountain men, Buffalo Soldiers patrolling Yosemite and legends surrounding real banditos like Joaquin Murrieta, stories every bit as exciting as the plotline of a summer superhero blockbuster.
I’ve recently been chasing ghost stories along the North Coast for a novel I’m writing. My most fun recent find: the haunting spirit of the “Shell Woman,” who brings sickness to men who mistreat their wives, introduced to me at the top of the Point Arena Lighthouse in Mendocino County by a Pomo guide who cares as deeply about the future of his people as he does about preserving their traditions.
As I visited the towering sentinel structure, built a century and a half ago and then reconstructed after the 1906 earthquake, I thought how much I would have liked to have brought my Delta students here, where southbound lumber schooners heavy under sail and carrying Northern redwood planks to home builders in a fast-expanding California depended on the strong lighthouse beam and its screaming horn to keep them clear of the rocky reefs around the point.
Whatever you think of the newly canonized St. Junipero Serra and his brown-skirt padres, let’s liberate the state’s fourth-graders from the mission project and instead send them off campus to explore the exciting records, remnants and restorations of our protected historical sites.