Texas Parade Magazine
By Carlton Stowers
Photos by Shelly Katz
THREE YEARS AGO. Trent Jones was earning $9,000 a year teaching San Antonio fourth graders, was so highly regarded by his peers and students alike that he was nominated as the nation's Outstanding Elementary Teacher, and lived with his wife and newborn daughter in a comfortable home in a fashionable residential section. By measure of most yardsticks applied within our society, Jones was a man of no small success.
On the other hand, he had freeways to maneuver each morning in route to his job and the same battle to fight on the way home every evening. There was the mortgage, the bureaucratic leanings of a big city school board and the constant high speed dash of friends and neighbors running everywhere and, so far as Jones was able to see, getting nowhere. By his own yardstick, he was falling woefully short of his personal definition of success.
He wanted out of the rat race.
So Trent Jones launched a search for a simpler place, a more relaxed and rewarding lifestyle. To find it he had to travel halfway across Texas to a small one-room schoolhouse in the ghost town of Terlingua. There on the southern edge of Brewster County , at the base of the Christmas Mountains , was the Terlingua Common School, serving as an academic oasis for the sons and daughters of the 100 or so adults who reside within the far-reaching boundaries of the school district. '
The multiple job of principal/teacher/janitor had come open, offering an annual salary of $4,500 for carrying out the duties of principal/teacher with an additional $50-per-month for janitorial work. Jones applied.
Never mind that the salary would make it economically impossible to enjoy such conveniences as a telephone. So what if he would have to haul water five miles to fill the 1,800 gallon tank which would sit behind the two-bedroom trailer house he would have to purchase with his savings. Terlingua was what he was looking for.
Once a thriving center of quick-silver mining, the town today is nothing more than scattered adobe remains of another time in Texas history. Only once a year, when an odd-ball assortment of chili fanciers, celebrities and curiosity seekers gather for the highly publicized World's Championship Chili Cook-off does it merit being referred to as anything but the ghost town it officially is.
Yet because a few people still live in the area, there is a post office and the one-room school where children from grade one to eight wrestle with the thundering mysteries of reading. writing and arithmetic.
Son of a retired Corpus Christi criminal lawyer, there was a time when Trent Jones aspired to follow in his father's footsteps. But he gave up his pre-law courses early at Trinity University and earned his bachelor's degree in drama and speech.
"I just felt I would be happier teaching, working with kids." he explains, "so I moved over into an area which I felt would prepare me for that kind of vocation. I'm not sure Dad understands it to this day but he has accepted it."
Following graduation, Jones' first teaching job came at Booker T. Washington Elementary in San Antonio where he taught special education classes to fourth graders. "I enjoyed the teaching," he says, "but at the same time I found myself becoming more and more frustrated. Because of the size of the school I wasn't able to spend as much time with the individual kids as I wanted to. Seemed like I spent half my time going to teachers' meetings and seminars, things like that. It was making me unhappy and I was afraid I was going to get to the point where it would begin to affect my teaching."
The search for a new environment began.
"My wife and I had done a lot of traveling around in our camper," he says, "and we had really fallen in love with the Big Bend country. We'd even bought a little 40 acre plot out there and used to talk a great deal about maybe one day living on it."
"It was," says Olga Jones, a full-blooded Greek, "one of those wild kind of dreams that you talk a lot about but never really believe will come true. But it has. We came here looking for a less complicated way of life and, fortunately, we've found it."
In addition to watching over two-year-old Anna Maria Jones, Olga, who was an art and drama major at Trinity, lends a hand to her husband at the school. She travels weekly to the school to teach music to the students.
Now in his third year at Tcrlingua the 28-year-old Jones has 21 students in grades one through eight. Most of those who arrive daily at the adobe brick school are the youngsters of ranchers, ranch hands and employees of a local land development company. Some come to him speaking only Spanish and one child is mentally challedged. All the students are brought to school by their parents, some traveling from as far away as 35 miles.
When the recent fall term opened Jones had pupils in all eight grades (two first graders, two in the second, three in the third, five in the fourth. one in the fifth, two in the sixth, two in the seventh and four in the eighth). "Our enrollment will go up at mid-term," Jones says. "since we're going to start a half-year kindergarten then. There are five or six kids around here who will be in that class."
To prepare for his weekly teaching duties Jones spends all day Sunday working up lesson plans from no less than 53 textbooks. His teaching philosophy is basic: "A good teacher," he is fond of saying, "is one who is organized and doesn't forget what it was like when he was in school."
His approach to his profession is unique, several light years removed from the strictly regimented academic lifestyle of the metropolitan school he left behind. None of his students, for instance, take home anything but A's on their report cards.
"I simply don't believe in failing anyone," he says. "If a student fails it means that he or she hasn't learned. And that I haven't taught. I won't accept that." Jones, therefore, often gives a student the same test as many as three or four times until all the answers are correct. When the student does finally achieve a perfect score that is what is recorded in Jones' gradebook. "So far as I'm concerned," he says, "there is nothing that instills self-confidence in a kid like being able to take home a straight A report card. By the same token, the student has learned the material and earned the grade. It's no gift and they know it."
Neither does Jones burden his classes with an overwhelming list of do's and don'ts. It is not uncommon to see a second grader pause in the midst of a mid-morning assignment to unwrap a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and start munching away. Jones, in fact, urges them to bring a snack along. "No person is going to be able to concentrate for long it they're hungry," he says, "particularly little kids. So it doesn't bother me to have them snack so long as they don't spoil their lunch.
"Besides, a little peanut butter on a math paper never hurt anybody."
Jones, who generally reports to work dressed in jeans and a sport shirt, says his only dress requirement is that his students are comfortable. A pile of children's shoes generally can be found near the door, for use only when a hike is planned.
Lunchtime at the Terlingua School is a far cry from a daily march to the cafeteria. Each student brings his own meal from home and is given a carton of milk donated by the local PTA and kept in a second-hand icebox in the back of the classroom.
At noon, weather permitting, the entire school population hikes to the nearby banks of Terlingua Creek, there to have a picnic which is often followed by a nature study hike before returning to indoor academic pursuits. On cold or rainy days they simply eat lunch at their desks.
"It's amazing to me how he keeps the students busy from 8:45 to 3:45 every day," says Mrs. Kathy Jenkins, president of the PTA and sometimes classroom aide. "He'll get the first graders busy drawing or something, then tell them he doesn't want any questions for 15 minutes. Then he moves to the second grade group, gets them started on an assignment, and tells them not to ask questions for 15 minutes. By the time he's worked through the eighth graders it's time for him to get back to the first graders and start the routine all over.
"He never seems to run down and his enthusiasm for a picture a first grader has done is no different from that he shows over one of the older kids getting a hard math problem correct."
Jones is convinced, however, that a well-rounded education is not to be found in textbooks alone. Thus he is constantly devising new projects for his students to participate in. There is, for instance, the school weather station, complete with barometer, thermometer and wind gauge which is checked daily and the school garden which is tended regularly.
"There's a little private airstrip near here that some of the ranchers use from time to time," Jones says. "We've tried to let everyone know that we've got our little weather station here and that they can call the school from wherever they are and we'll give them a weather report before they start out this way.
"And the garden project is something we hope to develop into something bigger. Our plans are for it to someday be a kind of nursery and market where people around here can come and buy some of the plants and vegetables the kids raise."
Another of the projects for his older students last year was the preparation of a children's story book. "The kids got together and decided on what the story would be, wrote it, illustrated it, designed a cover and then we put it together like a real book. Then, it was read to the younger kids."
Then there are the softball games which Jones frequently schedules with children from the Big Bend National Park School where youngsters of the park employees go to school and the annual end-of-the-year school play which is acted out by the students with Olga doing the directing, supervising the making of props and casting the parts.
In an area of the world where there are precious few diversions, Jones crams many into a five-day school week.
Last fall he was finally able to acquire a movie projector from the Texas Education Agency in Austin and began supplementing his classroom lectures with educational films. For many of his students it marked the first time in their young lives they had ever seen a movie of any kind. Terlingua is so isolated that there is no television reception and the only radio residents hear comes late at night when the border stations fill the airways with their 50,000 watt mail order religion and gospel singing.
With the help of his wife. Jones has learned to work an old sewing machine and plans to introduce some home making instruction to his curriculum this year. During the summer months he was able to repair the school record player, persuaded the school board to purchase an additional blackboard and proudly points to the fact that a cabinetmaker friend donated his time to add needed shelves to the school.
On a rare trip back to San Antonio a year ago he convinced the Friends of the San Antonio Library to donate something in the neighborhood of 1000 books they were preparing to discard. He piled the boxes of fiction and non-fiction volumes into the back of his pickup and arrived back at school with an instant library. "We've got some books." he grins. "that were published as early as 1890. For all I know we've got some real collectors' items. But at least there's now a variety of reading matter for the kids to check out and take home with them."
Such ingenuity has enabled Jones to operate his school on an annual budget of $500.
While his methods and philosophies may be somewhat unorthodox Jones has succeeded in achieving something few teachers and or administrators are able to do. The three-member Terlingua school board is happy with his efforts as are the vast majority of the parents of his students.
"We're fortunate to have a man like Trent ," says school board member Glenn Pepper, owner of a nearby resort where people come to spend a few days away from it all and take raft rides down the Rio Grande . "I don't believe I've ever met a man who enjoys his work as much as Trent Jones does. He works for me some during the summers as a guide on raft floats and seems to really enjoy it but when it gets close to time for school to begin I don't see much of him. He's down at the school house getting everything ready."
Ron Willard, owner of the filling station/grocery store in nearby Study Butte, is another member of the board aware of Jones' contributions: "Hell. I'll admit it—I had my doubts when he first came here, being from a big city and all. I really didn't figure he'd last out the year. But the more I got to know him, the more I could see that he really fit into this kind of life. And that he really liked kids. They come in here sometimes for a soda pop or something and all I hear is 'Mr. Jones this and Mr. Jones that.' They really think a lot of that man. So do we."
Obviously the feeling is mutual. Jones sees his situation as an opportunity few educators are ever fortunate enough to have.
"There's no pressure here." he says.
"Back in San Antonio the pressure level for teachers was enough to make you want to tear your hair out. Red tape. rules, problem children, school boards that weren't really aware of the needs or the situations in the class-rooms.
"All the problems of a big school make both teaching and learning hard. They're overloaded with things that distract from the primary purpose.
"Here, a kid can relax, put his feet up on his desk if he wants to, and not worry about anything but learning. It has always been my belief that learning takes place better in a relaxed atmosphere."
And there is the added luxury of being able to deal special attention to each student. "We had a brother and sister move in last year at mid-term," Jones recalls, "and the first day they were here the sister told me that she had always made good grades but that her brother hated school and made terrible grades. Their report cards bore that out.
"So, from the first day the little boy was in class I praised everything he did. When he did an assignment wrong I looked for something positive to point out while showing him what he had done wrong. He reacted to that quickly and now is one of the best students I have.
"I'm not saying I worked any kind of magic on him. It was just a matter of being able to recognize his problem and then show him a little more attention than some other kid. Because I don't have that many students I'm able to see what each individual needs and work toward providing him with those needs."
Following the completion of the eighth grade, Terlingua students transfer to the Alpine school system 80 miles north on Highway 118. Parents of Terlingua youngsters meet the Alpine school bus 20 miles up the highway and the students are then driven the remaining 60 miles to school. "A lot of times," Jones points out, "families just move to some other town where they're closer to school after their kids have finished here but we do have some kids who ride a bus 160 miles round trip daily to attend school in Alpine."
Of those who do, Jones notes, none have experienced difficulty meeting the academic requirements at a larger school. "In fact," he says, "almost without exception they've done work above their peer level. I'm always asked if the education our kids get prepares them to move to a larger school. The achievements of our students in the Alpine system answers that question."
The Jones family makes the trip to Alpine once a month to stock up on groceries, stay overnight in a motel, there to indulge in as many tub baths as they can manage, watch television and eat Mexican food at a favorite restaurant. "We have a good time," Jones says, "but it's always good to get back home. In addition to the chores that need doing around the place all the time we go exploring and visit friends. Terlingua is home. I can't imagine ever leaving. As long as there's a school here, this is where I want to teach." Trent Jones has found his avenue to success. ***
This article was also posted in the Corpus Christi Caller Times Feb. 8, 1976
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