Standing Apart (By Standing Together) 

At Crockett's John Swett High School, adults remain active in the lives of students. Other schools could take a lesson.

It's second down and forever for the John Swett High School football team. The offense is closer to its own snack bar than it is to the St. Elizabeth end zone. A wounded duck of a forward pass falls mercifully incomplete, prompting the cheerleaders to launch into their most generic cheers. Third down is a busted draw play, which causes the assistant principal to wince while chasing down his little kids. The kicker comes on and the band strikes up a tune by Sublime. Cheerleaders dance, middle-schoolers shriek, and parents clap as the varsity punts.

On the sidelines, an 82-year-old man travels down the field with the first-down stick, just as he has been doing for 55 years. Two strides from the playing field, a handful of adults reminisce about their own glory days, paying no mind to the yellow rope designed to keep them away. Behind the goal line, middle-schoolers with a football loft passes as an excuse to launch themselves at one another. Somewhere near the baseball diamond, a guy plays catch with his six-year-old son. Meanwhile, up on Tightwad Hill, recent grads drink beer and get high.

Welcome to John Swett High School, the dominant institution in a city smaller than some competing East Bay campuses. The school isn't just a reflection of Crockett, it is Crockett — the sons and daughters of the libertarians and libertines who call this 3,100-person community home. Factory workers, artists, and longtime residents populate the school's football games. Some work the snack bar, others tear tickets, and still others man the band booster table, but most just do their thing: seeing and being seen.

John Swett High School stands apart by standing together. Partly out of circumstance but also out of design, the adults and teens of Swett spend time together. Theirs is a high school where all ages are welcome in a town that involves its school in everything worth celebrating. Rather than creating a separate city of teens like most high schools do, John Swett fills its campus with a busy adult presence. Consequently, the school itself occupies the town's physical and emotional center.

Big cities and big schools could take a lesson.

Ron Spini still remembers driving to Crockett for the first time in 1984. He is sitting in the basement, office, and storage closet of the John Swett gym, where he has coached, taught, and served as athletic director since his arrival almost a quarter of a century ago. Spini has the tanned good looks and permanent squint of a man who has spent a lifetime outdoors. He laughs when he remembers his earliest discussions about the school he calls home. "I tell them 'John Swett' and they say 'Where's that?' And then I tell them, 'You know, in Crockett,' and that doesn't help much either. It isn't until I get to the 'big factory' that you get people saying, 'I think I know where that is.'"

After all, Crockett was a company town long before it was a high school town. The C&H Sugar plant has been a part of the city since 1906. It ruled the city for decades and still dominates the skyline of this town hard against the Carquinez Strait. Most visitors describe it as a piece of Pennsylvania stuck right here in the East Bay. The plant is startlingly strange to a Golden Stater's eyes: red brick, smokestacks, and sirens that go off around the clock but don't seem to freak anyone out.

C&H has been refining sugar in Crockett for generations. Ships from Hawaii sailed into the bay, and the refinery worked day and night pumping out smells both sweet and scary. The way the locals spin the factory's history depends on whose side they are on. From the American Legion you get C&H as a paternalistic presence, putting on Christmas shows and passing out cards and gifts to all the little children. On the other hand, the Howard Zinn version portrays C&H as the crushing fist of capitalistic greed — creating a rule of "Bloody Sugar" throughout the 1930s and then stiffing the town when things turned tough.

But now, the factory sits as kind of a mid-narrative Willy Wonka edifice, looming over the town, still producing its product but largely a mystery to the people who live under its shadow. At one time, the factory employed nearly 70 percent of the city's adult residents; today it's just 6.5 percent.

As the plant's importance to Crockett gradually diminished, the town just grew closer to its high school. For a while, the children of factory workers were the bulk of Spini's athletic teams. But when the factory cut back employment from its peak, Crockett settled into the demographic groove it retains today: artisans, outlaws, and a handful of other folks who just stuck around. The one thing that remained consistent was the sense of belonging.

That's why Spini stayed. The sense of community that attracted him could be said to begin in his very office. The sound of squeaky gym shoes and pounding balls echoes off the walls as a handful of students, clearly at home, wander in for medical tape, congratulations, or just to shoot the breeze.

"I won my meet yesterday, Spini," says a slender girl who just barges in.

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