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At home they are among the world’s most privileged adolescents, but on the ranch there are few symbols of wealth or status.
Students don’t need money or credit cards; there is little to buy.
Those who’d been to early services had scrubbed and brushed and dressed formally in ironed blouses and shirts, and the formality of the morning banquet was unusual, but aside from these exceptional circumstances, the gathering hubbub as the student body gathered together sounded pretty typical for Sunday brunch: the unrehearsed collective voice of this peculiar culture.
This pleasant musical burble, as the kids and staff chose places to sit and waited for the signal to fill their plates, made me think of this culture.
The subject—of culture—hasn’t been far from my thoughts for some time. Visiting parents, who come to talk about their troubled sons and daughters, often as what it’s like, and I often joke that here in Lost Prairie “it’s 1952, and Eisenhower was just elected.” I am not alluding to any political nostalgia, of course, but rather to my sense that this ranch community lives in a time warp. We’ve instituted a quarantine, banished much of contemporary mass culture.
I’d attempted, just the prior week, to talk about these teenagers at Psychiatry Grand Rounds at UC San Francisco, to describe in that far-away formal academic hospital setting the unusual culture of Montana Academy. There are no illicit drugs here—starting with cigarettes.
We had instead, as in many contemporary American venues, a subterranean anti-adult ethos among teenagers who, already at home, had begun to fail across the board at all the routine tasks of adolescence and already were behaving badly despite academic, domestic and uniformed police efforts at command and control. But altering a culture is not easy, quick, entirely rational, or easily predictable.
Those angry teenagers brought that anarchic, underground defiance to the ranch, and we had no established constructive counter-culture to contain it. To record how we got from that wretched early sociology to the friendly, hopeful, collaborative, safe culture I could hear, without looking, on Easter morning, would require a long ethnography.
Part of the excitement about these occasional feasts is that we suspend the eat-by-team rule, and girls and boys sit wherever they like. The kids were sweating as they worked, but their voices were cheerful.
The only initial ordering “structure,” as in a county jail, was a bleak rudimentary adult system of published rules and prohibitions with matching “consequences” for misbehavior.
Students avoided detection and punishment; they put themselves in the way of rewards.
I’d rather look for a painted egg down by the pond. On campus that first year the adolescent-adult salad dressing kept separating into oil and vinegar.
Many of our first students resisted all attempts to mix them.
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Looking back, I know that if that primitive culture had prevailed, we would now require two hundred wary staff, and watch-towers and search-lights, to manage the seventy students who now live on the ranch, and are supervised and cared for, 24/7, by sixty adults working in shifts.