By Lisa Catterall

I’ve learned that terror doesn’t happen because some group of people somewhere like Pakistan or Afghanistan simply decide to hate us. It happens because children aren’t being offered a bright enough future that they have a reason to choose life over death. – Greg Mortensen, 2009

My feet were dry and dusty. The heat was almost unbearable, and the smell of untreated sewage rolled along the dirt parking lot in clouds. The wall around the school in West Africa was the same dun brown as the dried out earth around it, with sharp metal spikes on top and a chain link door. The guard in full, old-fashioned livery greeted me with a giant smile and ushered me into the courtyard.

An old house with an exposed foundation stood in the middle of the courtyard, with a mud colored building in back and a complex of small mud brick rooms with corrugated metal roofing in the front. I could smell burning trash and sewage as we walked up the steps. The teachers greeted me proudly and showed me their classrooms, where unfinished lumber made desks that sat three or four more kids than they should have. They undid three enormous padlocks, and showed me the school library, which contained all the textbooks our school community had carried over from America, six

New York, 1918

laptops, and a special server containing a vast number of academic documents, no internet needed. I had a suitcase full of Montessori preschool materials (we found many more ideas at the local market), textbooks, and 11 more laptops. It was 2008 and the third time I’d found myself trying to build a school in the middle of Africa, amongst impossible conditions on the outside, but lifted up on a plume of unquenchable human spirit on the inside. Children and teachers will cross an endless desert and sit in the dirt to drink from that fountain of education that is the only slake for our universal human thirst for learning.

The preschoolers were in the mud building out back. There were 40 students in a 12-foot by 12-foot room with no supplies, and the teacher was guiding them through a beautiful singing lesson.

Boston, 1918

In 1918, while most U.S. schools closed for four months to prevent the spread of disease, Boston schools remained open during the height of the deadly flu pandemic. In Boston, students and teachers sat bundled up, in icy cold open-air, with cups of hot liquid in their hands, and held class. In New York City, classrooms sprung up on rooftops and abandoned ferries, open to the very cold, but safe, outdoor air.

I once saw a teacher using a rock to draw letters in the mud for her three students, cut off from their distant school in Mali by the Niger River floodplain.

In the year 2020 in America, students and teachers are no less thirsty for knowledge. The assumption that we have become too soft to teach on dusty ground, in heat and cold, in the middle of nature, without our bulletin boards and supply carts and snack machines is false. Every day we hear about adults venting frustrations over mask requirements or giving up and throwing parties. Children want and need to be with their teachers every day, seeing their eyes and hand gestures and compassion in person. Schools are the center of their communities. In fact, after the 1918 pandemic, schools were articulated as such as the government reopened them with the new functions of food distribution and healthcare. Children need school, communities need school.

Children are not so set in their ways that wearing a mask or sitting apart sends them over the edge. Every day at Mount Madonna School, I see my high school students behaving with gratitude and respect and even joy that we are together again. Sometimes, we all sigh and remember how it was a year ago, and wish we were so free, but we are grateful to be able to see each other every day.

We are grateful to meet eye-to-eye across the tent with nothing but organic, germ-free air between us. When I present an activity that I know would not be possible online, my students ask me if I think we will stay in school in person, because online school was hard for them. I say, I hope so. Teachers are so frustrated with the limitations of teaching through a screen that we will teach in the heat, ash, dust, and anything else the outdoors throws at us. Kids everywhere are thirsty to learn; it is the magic of being a kid. They can learn to be comfortable in conditions some adults can’t imagine, they are adaptable. My fervent hope is that our leaders in Santa Cruz County and beyond have the faith in our children and teachers, and in our community of thinkers, and in our amazing outdoor spaces, to allow learning to continue in person.


Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, director of marketing & communications,

Nestled among the redwoods on 375 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a diverse learning community dedicated to creative, intellectual, and ethical growth. MMS supports its students in becoming caring, self-aware, discerning and articulate individuals; and believe a fulfilling life includes personal accomplishments, meaningful relationships and service to society. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville. Founded in 1979.