A question had been circulating since last September in this remote high-country town of 9,000 self-reliant and amiable citizens: What would possess a father to send his 17-year-old boy from Washington to live in Rawlins? What's here? Antelope herds forage the sage flats, the social life is about as exciting as a cowboy's sleeping bag and Interstate 80 cuts through town as a trade route for travelers and escape route for natives with an itch.
A rumor circulated: The father sent the kid to Rawlins as a punishment! Why else? The delinquency, so the speculation went, ran from selling drugs to congressmen to smashing his mother's car. In the once wild West, stories thrive about the still wild East.
Thoughts of punishment come naturally to Rawlins. The state penitentiary is here, quarried from Wyoming granite and sitting like a butte on the north slope of town. The other evening at the graduation at Rawlins High School, with Jimmy McCarthy one of the 137 members of the class of '85, I did what I could to answer the question and scotch the rumor.
The lad's mother has successfully kept him free of drugs and I have kept him away from congressmen. I have lapsed on occasion, once when risking Jimmy to the company of Rep. Barney Frank and later, in an uncontrollable fit of balance, bringing him to meet Sen. Alan Simpson. In Wyoming, I explained that Frank and Simpson are among the funniest men of politics. I didn't need to explain that politics is the funniest thing that goes on in Washington. Frank, liberal and anatomical, counseled Jimmy to keep his heart on the left. Simpson, conservative and proper, advised him to think right.
The boy went to Rawlins to figure it all out. From what I could learn about what he has learned, his year at Rawlins High School has been a gift that no tuition could buy. He found out about desire, which is the essence of education. Many of his classmates traveled 100 miles back and forth to school. The school district itself is larger than New Jersey. The immense effort to reach the front door apparently provides a reason to be alert once inside it. At graduation, the principal announced that $350,000 worth of college scholarships had been won by seniors. The choice of schools ranges from Notre Dame to West Point.
Education in Wyoming is a political passion, which helps explain why its children grow up with a desire for it. Wyoming's constitution, which, like the state's air, is free of haze, guarantees every high-school graduate entry into the university at Laramie "as nearly free as possible." Tuition is currently an extremely possible $358 a semester, about one-tenth the rate at private Eastern colleges.
For a city kid, much of the value of a year in Rawlins was in getting to know rural girls and boys. Emmylou Harris has yet to be replaced by Madonna, whose freakhood is likely to come and go before impressing anyone in Rawlins. Preppiness hasn't reached the high school either, at least not among the kids who have home gardens, keep their own horses and know the communal intimacy of a ranch family fighting the severe Wyoming winter.
The half-dozen teachers I spoke with at the high school had severities of another kind to battle: being rural educators in a nation that thinks urban. Rural education has problems that have been pushed aside in the flow of the schools-are-in-crisis reports of the past two years. A third of America's teachers serve rural children and one half of all public schools are in rural areas, yet it is the city school that dominates the national discussion.
Rawlins teems with history. Jimmy's luck was to meet up with a few local historians eager to tell it. One of these was Carbon County sheriff C.W. (Chuck) Ogburn. He is a full-faced man with a throaty voice and a generous nature. His graciousness made it easy to put out to pasture his opinions on criminal justice: more executions, less gun control, longer prison sentences, fewer police restraints.
Ogburn could teach a seminar at Harvard Law on the perils of enforcement when it is his cunning against the criminal's. The other evening, Ogburn the educator came to a local living room to tell in a few hours his story of the West. "Out here when you die," he said, "at least you'll know your pallbearers. In the East, they hire strangers. That's no way to live."
A year's worth of Rawlins friendliness is not what pushes up the SAT scores for an Eastern lad. It is everything, though, for a young fellow's heart, as well as his mother's and father's, who relished every letter with a Rawlins postmark.