All three chairs on the barbershop side of Reyna's Beauty Salon were occupied. Three young barbers cropped the necks of three young customers, and a fourth waited his turn. Everyone in this Lamont barbershop had a vote, I announced. "Pretend you're the school board. How does Lamont High School sound to you?"
"High school?" Dimas Ramos smirked from chair No. 1. "How about a Starbucks? How about a Walmart?"
The cross-talk rose a decibel, nearly drowning out the electric buzz of clippers on skin.
"How about an In-N-Out?" shouted Lalo Lopez, looking up from the fade he was administering to a client's neck. "Or a Taco Bell? Lamont doesn't even have a Taco Bell."
Clearly these 20-somethings have other priorities for their hometown, a farming burg 10 miles southeast of Bakersfield.
But some in Lamont have been pushing for a high school for a decade or more, and that quest came to a head last week when the Kern High School District board of trustees told them no. Again.
Lamont doesn't have enough students to justify a high school, board members declared. The 1,400 kids from the Lamont/Weedpatch area who attend Arvin High School, 8 miles southeast of Lamont by way of two-lane Panama Road and North Comanche Drive, will just have to keep riding those big, yellow buses.
But "the buses are crowded and the trip takes too long," said Jovita Otero, a broker at Fiesta Insurance who graduated from Arvin High. "I understand why people would want something different."
The school district is instead eyeing a new campus 6 miles west of Lamont, on Bakersfield's ever-creeping southern edge, at the now-desolate corner of Panama and Cottonwood roads. That rural intersection, at present, is so devoid of non-bovine, non-equine life, one could practically re-create Cary Grant's biplane chase scene from "North by Northwest" without anyone noticing.
But that will change soon, district data suggests. Even though Golden Valley High School, which opened in 2003, is just 2½ miles northwest of the new site, sufficiently dense growth will overtake the undeveloped farmland surrounding Panama and Cottonwood soon enough. That's been a recurring storyline hereabouts.
And Lamont will remain a bridesmaid.
Lamont Chamber of Commerce president Jose Gonzalez, a candidate for 4th District supervisor, says the district's preferred 2,000-student threshold doesn't stand up well to scrutiny. He cites California Department of Education data showing Foothill High with 1,980 students, North High with 1,720 and Shafter High with 1,638. Lamont will grow to 1,600 students by 2021, he says. That would justify a new Lamont High, whose creation would take pressure off Arvin High, so over capacity now the school requires 30 portable classrooms.
Donnie Carr, who's been selling hammers and swamp coolers at the Lamont General Store for three decades, isn't convinced, however.
"Lamont only has 14,000 people that we know of," he said. "We're a one-horse town, although we're busy for a one-horse town. My taxes went up $280 when they built a new school one year, and they went up $280 again when they built another one. Arvin High is getting packed, don't get me wrong. But I just wonder if we're ready."
Maybe he isn't ready, but the fresh-faced checkers working Fiesta Market's row of cash registers sure seem to be.
"It would create a lot of pride in the town," Stephanie Vargas said. "A lot of businesses would promote the school and the teams. Friday night games would be fun."
"I know my sisters would like to go to a Lamont school," said Nancy Reyes, an Arvin grad and lifelong Lamont resident. "They play soccer — my one sister is a beast — and I know they'd like to play right here."
Reyes can already see little sis in a Lamont High uniform. "I'd call them the Lightning," she said. "Gold and light blue. Sports teams would bring us all together."
Indeed, small-town high schools are reflections of their communities and small communities reflections of their high schools. A high school can help define a town; in rural communities across America, the local school's colors and mascot become the town’s colors and mascot.
A 2003 report on town-school synchrony by an education coalition led by the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities said as much: "Many (high schools) ... lie at the heart of the communities they serve. Not only are they educating our next generation of leaders, but also schools are places where we congregate, where people from every corner of town and all walks of life come together as one. At no time is this unity more evident than during a high school athletic event."
Imelda Hernandez, owner of Imelda's Salon on Main Street, saw that phenomenon at work growing up in Wasco, a Kern County farm town with demographics much like Lamont's. "Everyone in the town came together for the school," she said. Her son Adrian, who works alongside her, saw the same thing a generation later. "They had to add extra bleachers," he said.
Lamont High won't be in that sort of position for a while, if ever, but the town seems intrigued by the idea.
Lopez, the barber, likes gold and red as team colors. Yes, he is a 49ers fan.
(In case you're wondering, the name Lions is taken by Mira Monte High, 5 miles to the north.)
Otero likes green and yellow, "because of the agriculture. We could call them the Vaqueros, because we've got so many horses around here."
Even Carr, not sold on the idea of a Lamont High, likes green and yellow. He's a fan of the Green Bay Packers, who've worn those colors for almost a century. And, no small irony, the Packers are the only NFL team owned by the community itself, so ordinary Green Bay residents are literally invested.
"Hey — Packers makes sense in Lamont, too," he said. "Plenty of packing sheds."
Sounds like they're onto something. All Lamont needs now is the school to go with it.