I teach English and journalism at Newport High School on the Central Oregon Coast and frequently (obsessively, some of my students might say) cite examples from modern Oregon history to educate them how the state once served as an international model for the conservation of natural resources, and more importantly, how the laws protecting the public's use of Oregon's ocean beaches drastically improved their lives today.
Not too long ago, as the school year came to an end, I issued a unique homework assignment to my seniors to commemorate their status as graduates... and hardcore Oregonians who should give thanks to the politicians and citizens from long ago who fought so hard and so successfully to protect our ocean beaches from privatization and prudery.
Here's the story:
I parked in front of my favorite place in Newport — the Fishermen's Memorial — in Yaquina Bay State Park. It was 5:17 in the morning and drizzle fell. The sun seemed as hidden in the closet as the shag carpet in a coastal motel room, which was just about right on the first day of June. I turned off the headlights, exited the cab, and drank black coffee while I waited.
Minutes later, Ross and India drove up in his Honda and emerged with a dozen donuts baked fresh from JC Market. Then Brittany skidded her Plymouth Roadster to a stop across from me. More cars raced into the parking lot, coming from the north, south, virtually all of them nicer than my truck. Shouldn't a teacher own a better vehicle than his students? And doesn't anyone take driver's training anymore?
We gathered near my truck, 40 seniors, my English students, on the last Monday of their high school careers. The First Annual Newport High School Senior Walk was about to begin. We would take to the holy sand and freely recreate on what former Oregon Governor Oswald West called "our great birthright" — Oregon's publicly owned beaches. These students might have paid $3.50 for latte on their way here but they didn't have to pay a cent to walk on an ocean beach.
They knew the story. They knew how decades ago West and other politicians steered Oregon on a different course, a better course, to protect beaches from privatization. And here these Oregonians were, most of them half asleep, primed to exercise their great birthright.
Yes, they knew the story well because I had beaten it into them like a propaganda minister from a fascist state. They had asked me to shut about the sanctity of Oregon's publicly owned beaches but I never would. How many words had we written about it? Not enough!
It was time: 5:30. Let the walk begin! Onward to the sea! To quote Marvin Gaye, "Let's get it on!" If I saw an iPod or a cell phone in use, someone wasn't going to graduate.
But before we began, I asked someone to repeat West's famous quote: "No local selfish interest should be permitted, through politics or otherwise, to destroy or even impair this great birthright of our people."
Jessica whipped out her journal, tried finding the quote I had ordered them to copy down in class, but couldn't locate it. She took a run at the quote from memory and butchered it, but that hardly mattered.
What mattered was that my students were here at dawn!
We descended the stairs and passed a homeless man asleep in the sand. India and Brittany ran ahead and carried something in a bag. Out came a cylindrical object I couldn't make out that Brittany staked into the sand. She kneeled down to it and her hand went to a pocket. Seconds later, a bottle rocket lifted off, screamed, exploded, and sparks lit up the sky and scattered to the ground. Great! We had just broken the law!
When the cops arrived, we'd quote Oswald West as our only defense. We would need no other and no Oregon jury would ever convict us.
We walked to the North Jetty in no discernible formation. Serena ran to the water's edge and stared west. Alex's dog went nuts. Light began to defeat the darkness and the lighthouse almost looked sexy as she came into full view. We talked and laughed. A few girls skipped. Anna made a goofy face. Five species of birds flew around us and I wanted to run wild so I did. Others joined me. We ran with no particular place to go, the finest way to run.
It was time to leave. First period, you know? We rallied at Pig N' Pancake and ate together as friends, Oregonians, and countrymen. I bought them all breakfast because they were seniors graduating in five days, because they had worked so hard and so well for me this year, and because they had woken up very early and met me on the beach.