The Last Teacher at the Keene School
Mountain Tales: First-hand stories of life in Tehachapi
February 15, 2020
It was late August, 1966 on a very hot afternoon when my husband and I pulled into Tehachapi for the first glimpse at our new community. In Colorado earlier that summer we had interviewed with the Tehachapi Unified School District superintendent about teaching jobs in Tehachapi. Yes, he said, they needed a math teacher at the junior high, and yes, he said, Tehachapi has skiing and fishing very close, and yes, it is the top of a mountain pass. We signed our contracts with eagerness and excitement, but as we approached the town, coming from Colorado, it didn't look like a mountain pass; where could we fish; and where could we ski? Oh well, at least I had a math job. . . or did I? No, I was told, they didn't actually need a math teacher, but I could teach kindergarten, first, second and third grade at a country school in Keene, California. And thus it was that I became the last teacher of the Keene School.
Feeling frustrated, but excited to begin my first teaching job, I sat on the floor of the Keene School and began looking at the textbooks. I tried to organize them in order of difficulty. "This seems easier than this one," I decided, "This will be for kindergarten. . . these for first grade, etc." I later learned that the publishers had dots to indicate the level of difficulty. I was 21 and wet behind the ears. I was the teacher of the school, the lunch monitor, the secretary, the registrar, the custodian, and the nurse. I had no children of my own, and no real experience, but I soon fell in love with the kids. I taught them during the day; watched them after school; and babysat them and their siblings on the weekends. They became my kids, and what a joy I had that year.
The school had an office, a stage, a classroom, and a one-bedroom teacherage with a kitchen and restroom that the teacher and kids shared. There was a basketball court outside and a nice playground area. That year we had fifteen students, with the Stonybrook Tuberculosis Sanitarium providing the jobs for most of the parents. We had our own little school bus and a driver named Ruby who kept the bus at her house.
The school year began with a couple of new brothers who hadn't been enrolled the previous year. I was ready for them with the correct forms, and began by asking questions of the mother, such as "What does your husband do for a living?" When the answer came that he was an actor, I asked, "Where does he work?" I was not prepared for the answer, which was "Hollywood." I then began to flounder. . . "You mean, like a real movie star?" "Yes," came the answer. So of course I wanted to know who he was. "Noah Beery," she replied. My response probably wasn't expected by her either: "Never heard of him," I replied. I later learned that Noah and his father were both pretty famous. At the time Noah was filming The Rockford Files starring James Garner. Both of the brothers, Page and Sean Slattery, missed much school when they went filming in Hollywood so I began tutoring them for hours after school. It took awhile for me to realize that I was now in California where "real movie stars" actually live.
– Mary Lou Smith
Mary Lou Smith worked for the Tehachapi Unified School District for 38 years before her retirement. She was a cherished counselor at Tehachapi High for many years, assisting Tehachapi students through their high school years and helping them with college choices.