Recently, the middle school I attended, David Starr Jordan, has been the subject of a renaming campaign, due to the fact that Mr. Jordan, an early President of Stanford University, was a proponent of eugenics who advocated for enforced sterilization and helped write the cornerstone texts for the Nazis eugenics program (including its use of gas). As a professor of Critical Race Studies, I strongly believe that we shouldn’t be honoring the names of people who were proponents of hateful ideologies. That's why I began a twitter campaign to get my old Middle School renamed for a member of the Grateful Dead, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan.
Some people may be surprised to hear me advocating for this, since I am known to hate the Grateful Dead. I hate their music, what they stand for, their fashion sense…the whole kit and caboodle. Hell, I hated my middle school, too. But I'd still like it to be re-named for Pigpen, who attended there in 1960 or thereabouts. So did Cory Lerios, of the band Pablo Cruise, and actor James Franco, now of #metoo fame. But I think Pigpen would be the best for this purpose.
According to my crack team of experts, the McKernan family lived on Santa Catalina Street. Ron’s dad had been a DJ on an R&B station (KDIA), so pretty much every blues, soul and R&B record was delivered to Pigpen’s doorstep, making him interesting to the likes of Jerry Garcia. Before 1964, McKernan dropped out of Paly and worked at Dana Morgan Music on Ramona Street (with Jerry Garcia). They played a Be-In in Palo Alto on July 2, 1967 which my brother says is our first rock concert (I was a baby, so I don't remember). He died in 1973, and is buried in Alta Mesa Memorial Cemetery off in Palo Alto.
|pigpen babysitting Sunshine Kesey|
Other than the local paper publishing my letter pleading with citizens to consider the name, my campaign went exactly nowhere. The citinzry has moved on to debating whether the proposed name Yamamoto (for Fred Yamamoto, a resident/graduate who was interned in WWII) is problematic since he bears the same name as the Japanese general responsible for Pearl Harbor, and/or if a better solution would be to put plaques up explaining the history behind the current names. In the same spirit, my old school could be called after Barbara Jordan, or Jordan almonds, or Michael Jordan, or better yet, Michael B. Jordan (The Jordan Kilmongers has a nice ring to it.) But though I see the point, I still think that David Starr Jordan Middle School would be far better off being named McKernan Middle School. Here’s why:
#1. History. Middle Schools should be named for people who have affected it. One of the names on the short list is Bill Hewlett, who began the company Hewlett Packard, and it’s true that this area prizes its role as the birthplace of Silicon Valley. But Palo Alto has other links to American history and culture, for example, as the home of Joan Baez, Ken Kesey, the Acid Tests and the counterculture as a whole. Sure, Palo Alto is obsessed with startup culture, but why should the idea of a ‘startup’ be limited to business and technology? Why not celebrate those who start-up art? McKernan ‘started up’ the Grateful Dead, a cultural icon who have had lasting impact on American history.
#2. Symbolism. Ron “Pigpen” McKernan was nicknamed after a character in Peanuts. There is nothing cuter and more fun and more American than Peanuts. Also, let’s be real: what better term is there for a middle school – any middle school – than pigpen? You know it. I know it. Why can’t we just admit it? Middle school is a miserable time in every kid’s life. Maybe instead of naming schools after learned Stanford luminaries, we should name them after fun things that everybody likes, like Star Wars, or Super Mario Brothers, or sour patch candy, or, well, characters from Peanuts.
#3. Reparations. Palo Alto owes its students a new set of community standards and value. According to his Wikipedia page, McKernan was a high school drop-out who was kicked out of the Dead several times, once for jamming too long (!!!!!) and once for drinking too much (!!!!!). Both of these attributes are directly opposed to everything that every kid in Palo Alto has been taught. Here, coloring in the lines, thinking in bullet points, and never, ever, indulging in any kind of pleasurable, non-money-earning pursuit is truly anathema; the students live in a world that is fraught with anxiety and test-taking, where failure is worse than death. Think I’m exaggerating? In the past three years, there have been twelve suicides of Palo Alto High School students, and those are just the ones who threw themselves in front of the local train; there have been countless others and even more attempts than the newspapers are willing to account for.
Renaming the middle school after someone who achieved something despite having poor grades and test scores might be one place to start changing the wretched achievement culture of Palo Alto and environs. As my brother, a stone cold Deadhead, says, "Pigpen was a weird unhappy guy, who somehow found a way to take what made him weird and turn it into a community and a living. That's the hope of pretty much every kid, so Pigpen Junior High Seems perfect.
"Plus, think of the merchandising possibilities."
Pigpen Middle Cchool T-shirts seems like a real possibility -- if I were at all arty, I would make some and sell them on Etsy -- but the fact is, it will never happen. Although the final decision isn’t going to be made until the city council meeting of March 27th, the possible names (Hewlett, Yamamoto, and a lady who was responsible for installing bike lanes, among others) were decided by a “citizens committee” months and months ago, and I am sure that can’t be overturned or added to by me. But wouldn’t it be fun if it was?