Chopping wood a part of curriculum at transfer’s school

Over an hour and a half had passed since the other students had stopped chopping wood. This was her first time creating her own fuel to heat the water for her shower, and junior Sophie Baer was miserable.

The wood-chopping process (a mandatory ax was included on her packing list) started with Baer going to the wood pile behind her room, picking out the easy-looking pieces, chopping them and loading them into a wheelbarrow to transport the fuel to the shower fires.

Then she had to stuff the wood into a long narrow chute, light a fire and stoke it for two hours while it heated a tank of water. Although she didn’t have to sit at the fire for the whole two hours, she did have to come back every 15 minutes to make sure it was still lit.

When Baer tells people about her former boarding school, Midland School in Los Olivos, Calif., she said they think she went to a correctional institute.

Although the students had chores, were responsible for making their own hot showers and had strict rules, they were by no means delinquents.

When Midland was founded at the end of the Great Depression in 1932, the founders wanted to incorporate the philosophy of teaching the younger generation life skills. The students were supposed to learn both how to be self-reliant and how to live off what was around them.

The school itself has an eight-acre organic garden, which provides about 70 percent of the school’s produce, as well as a cattle ranch on its 2,860-acre property.

“Everyone in the school had a job that you had to do every day, from being a waiter to cleaning classrooms,” Baer said. “We had a work period every Sunday for two hours where everyone had to clean the school.”

Baer spent her sophomore year (after transferring from a middle school that included ninth grade) at Midland because of her family legacy—her father, brother, grandfather and aunt all attended.

“When you explain (Midland), most of the things you explain are the manual labor and strict rules,” she said. “But it’s a regular boarding school just with more responsibility.”

Baer said her first couple of weeks there were miserable.

“At the beginning of the year, it was kind of a shock,” she said. “After getting used to the constant manual labor, it became more fun than work.”

Baer said the job she enjoyed most was working in the kitchen. She cleaned up after meals and put away food and cooking utensils for the cook once a day.

For the first semester Baer was a waiter in the dining hall. Other jobs were reserved for upperclassmen like bell ringer (ringing the giant bell that ran the school, signaling classes, meals and assemblies) and being the head of various job crews.

Part of what made Midland unique was the size. There were only 12 in Baer’s sophomore class, which was small even for that school, which usually has about 25 students per grade.

Not only was there a lot of responsibility as far as jobs went, but the school was still a college preparatory boarding school, with “constant academics,” Baer said.

She often attended night classes during the two-and-a-half hour mandatory study sessions each night, as well as attending classes six days a week.

Baer transferred to SCDS in September, when she moved to Sacramento to live with her mom. But she isn’t the only one at SCDS who attended Midland for a part of high school.

Drawing teacher Andy Cunningham attended Midland for his  freshman and sophomore years and actually was at the school at the same time as Baer’s father. Like Baer, Cunningham eventually found the chores fun.

“I was kind of brought up with that, I knew how to swing an ax and use a chainsaw by the time I got to school,” Cunningham said.
Although Baer didn’t pick up the wood chopping as quickly as Cunningham, she learned to appreciate Midland, she said.

“Living with such a small group of people and working with them made us all incredibly close, and I miss them a lot,” Baer said.

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