"Where'd you go?"
When people introduce themselves to each other, once they've established that both parties are from Bakersfield, that's usually the first question asked. Often before they discuss jobs, spouses, kids or most anything else, they establish high school alma maters. It's the lead-up to the next question: "Do you know (blank)?"
The Kern High School District is about to decide, for thousands of still-young and yet-to-be-conceived people, what those specific words will be — the school name that will be stamped across diplomas for many graduating classes to come.
There's a new high school in town, or soon will be, and the board has to decide what to call it.
This may seem like a trivial matter to some. Be assured it is not. New business ventures, whether built from the ground up or birthed from the union of existing entities, need identities, and their names are the first thing, and arguably the most important thing, they must decide at inception. Monied entities often pay richly to establish identities, and a substantial part of the investment is that first essential ingredient: the name.
Schools are no different.
Which brings us to the desolate corner of Panama Lane and Cottonwood Road, an intersection where the traffic consists mostly of trucks conveying produce by the ton, slow-moving farm equipment and teenage drag racers.
That will change, eventually.
The Bakersfield-based school district's 19th campus will be built here, 4 miles west of Lamont (which continues to lobby in vain for its own high school), in advance of this city's inexorable southward growth. The first class of students will walk onto the virgin campus in August 2022.
This isn't Madison Avenue, so the KHSD will present team swag — hats, sweatshirts, that kind of thing — to the person who comes up with the name selected by trustees.
The school-naming process can be complicated, fraught with political and cultural sensitivities, but the Kern High School District has done a pretty good job avoiding all of that to this point — for starters, by observing a policy that discouraged trustees from naming newly constructed schools after people, living or dead.
At first, dealing with that restriction was easy. Trustees named schools after the towns they served. After that approach was exhausted, trustees started attaching compass-point identities to new schools. By 1965, though, with the opening of West High School, they were out of single-syllable options.
The next step was coming up with names that evoked some vague sense of strength or pride, names that sounded more like new housing developments than schools. Mira Monte. Centennial. Ridgeview. Naming protocols included the proviso that school names not start with a letter of the alphabet already taken by another, lending the process a mildly challenging parlor game aspect.
Those limits were finally lifted this summer when the trustees voted unanimously to open up the deliberations to just about any possible name, human or conceptional, alphabetically duplicative or not.
"We were running out of alphabet," trustee Jeff Flores acknowledged. "Once you're down to Z, X or Y, it's time to expand the envelope." And so they did.
After announcing the contest last spring, the district's school-naming committee received nearly 1,000 suggestions from the community that ranged from sarcastic (Not Lamont High) to sober (Thurgood Marshall High) to inspired but goofy (Schooly McSchoolFace High). Many were high-sounding nouns like Vanguard and Allegiance, or descriptive Spanish terms like El Valle Sur. And, for the first time, individuals were included.
The committee whittled the nominees down to eight finalists — Prosperity, Victory, Panama, Tacoma, David Nelson, Buck Owens, Col. Thomas Baker and Mary K. Shell — and laid the list at the feet of the trustees, who will pick one or potentially none of those options on Oct. 7.
That gives me just enough time to prevent them from making a grievous error. Please, trustees, skip these candidates:
● Tacoma: Why would we want to share the name of a Kern County school with a large, working-class city in western Washington (even if that city does not have a Tacoma High School of its own)? Tacoma was the name the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest gave to what we now call Mount Rainier — a peak that lies a mere 999 miles north of the new Bakersfield school site. For many, though, the name conjures up the Toyota Tacoma truck, which is a perfectly good vehicle but will not inspire anyone to complete their calculus homework.
● Col. Thomas Baker: The local pioneer already has an entire city named after him, for crying out loud. And do we really want a Bakersfield High School and a Baker High School (whose football team, as trustee Bryan Batey has pointed out, would presumably play on Baker's field)?
● Victory: One of those generic-but-triumphant-sounding words, like Liberty and Independence, but worse because it just sort of dangles without context.
● Panama: We already have an elementary school and a school district by that name, as officials from that district have already pointed out. And I keep envisioning a principal who looks like Manuel Noriega. The dictator, not a member of the Old Town Kern restaurant family.
The rest I can live with, although I should point out that the student body of this new school will be predominantly Hispanic and all of the four finalist individuals are deceased, non-Hispanic Caucasians. This should not be a disqualifying detail, and it bears noting that I saw only a few Latin names among the 968 nominees. So the list from which the committee drew was lacking in the first place. But it's still striking.
Having said all that, my choice would be Buck Owens High School. The country music legend and radio magnate didn't graduate from high school himself but over time he educated himself to the ways of business and his craft. He created a distinct identity for himself and this, his adopted city. He rose out of poverty, then gave generously of his time and fortune. Yes, he was a non-Hispanic white guy but his music was influenced by the Tejano of his Texas and Arizona upbringing, as well as rockabilly.
And Buck Owens High School lends itself to the most obvious of mascots — Vaqueros. Or, as Buck grew up pronouncing it, Buckaroos.
The nominating committee did not advance my suggestion, Zanahoria High School (Spanish for carrot, and utilizing a previously ignored initial letter), but I'm over it now. If we can't celebrate our status as a carrot incubator ("We'll root-root-root for the root fruit ..."), maybe we can celebrate our status as a music incubator. At least neither name sounds like a new housing tract.