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Overheard: Cool for school

For 100 years, it's been one Tam thing after another...

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I once wrote a highly fictionalized account of my last few days as a student at a unique and distinctive yet rollicking California public high school. It was written for a creative lit class at San Francisco State, and although the name and whereabouts of my alma mater were transmogrified, the singular ambiance of the place was faithfully rendered. "Where did you go to school, Tamalpais High?" sneered a newly arrived classmate who had heard of Tam's unique qualities even in faraway Seattle and recognized the legend between the lines of my perfunctory prose.

Tamalpais High School opened for business a century ago this month, and by all accounts it was a pretty special place even in its early years. Constructed so hapless Southern Marin teens wouldn't have to make the trek all the way to San Rafael, the new school wasn't much more than a shack on a hill overlooking a swamp when it opened its doors on Aug. 4, 1908, but within a decade or so it could boast a campus as lovely as any Ivy League university's. (Many of the buildings were designed and built by the students themselves, an early example of the school's hands-on teaching philosophy.) Gray Line buses used to stop at 700 Miller so tourists could wander the grounds and check out the landscaped gardens, Spanish Colonial buildings, public artworks (many created by the WPA) and tucked-away architectural treasures. (I always found Orange Court with its titular trees and polished-stone cherub fountain particularly meditative.)

Many a future luminary learned the rudiments of Latin, home ec and engineering (or, in my pre-Prop 13 era, cartooning, fencing and Swahili) at the corner of Camino Alto and Miller. The first was Eve Arden, the 1926 Homecoming Queen who went on to craft an acting career as filmdom's premier martini-dry wiseacre. Quasi-presidential aspirant Pat Paulsen graduated in 1945; All-Star shortstop Joe DeMaestri in 1946; Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey in 1947. S.F. Sound stalwarts John and Mario Cipollina and Bill Champlin honed their talents at concerts on Tam's front lawn (a David Crosby tune titled "Tamalpais High [At Around 3]" was recorded in 1971 by Crosby, Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh), and two decades later Cintra Wilson, Courtney Thorne-Smith and Tupac Shakur brought their disparate charms to our bucolic campus.

My own years on the premises were not without the Sturm und Drang common to anyone's raging-hormone adolescence, but Tam offered certain compensations. The teachers, primarily. Robert Sherman brought American history alive with the dramatic intensity of a thespian. English teacher John Nicholson was possessed of a dry, raised-eyebrow wit and the ability to explain better than anyone when to say "whom" and when to say "who." Stan Ritchie taught biology with a certain lazy charm, but what he really liked to talk about was local history and the movies. (You can see him getting a mud bath in Phil Kaufman's 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers.) And Dick Fregulia, professional jazz pianist and faculty adviser on the Tam News, made working on a newspaper seem like a pleasant and even estimable career choice.

Tam's student body was another plus, a diverse (for Marin County) cross-section of Bolinas hippiedom, Marin City disadvantaged, pre-Ayatollah Iranian millionaires out of Belvedere and all the many gradations in between, most funneled into one or another campus coterie (parking lot tough guys, Mead Theater potheads, front lawn yuppies, et al.) but coalescing on occasion into a largely respectful whole. Tam High has been a politically progressive sort of place at least since the '60s, when students would picket Safeway across the street for selling non-union table grapes and the school canceled classes on Feb. 27, 1967, for a daylong teach-in on race relations. Since then Tam has become one of the first schools in the nation to retire its Indian mascot, has tried to (but was prevented from) distributing condoms to students without parental approval and has sent student writers, musicians and artists to Havana for a largely unprecedented example of Cuban-American good fellowship. One century later, Tam High remains a special place indeed.

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