Flight of the honeybees

On the first day of school this year, I took a photograph of a bee crawling across the pane of glass. It was a just-installed window in Oak Hill School’s newest building, the soon-to-open drama center, McGehee West. It wasn’t a spectacular photo or specifically notable, although I did like the image of the clouds reflected on the dark glass as the bee clung to it.

Those honeybees, they’re around a lot. The hive boxes are maybe two hundred yards from my office window. And just outside my door, I count seventeen fruit trees (mostly apples with a few pear trees mixed in) that remain from an antique orchard. In the spring, the bees flock to the orchard and throughout the course of summer, the bees pillage the blackberries that seem to engulf this side of Oregon.

The beehives are the domain of our faculty naturalist and the 2nd graders. Every fall, usually in the 3rd week after the school doors open, a swarm of six- and seven-year-olds, many of them missing teeth, don white smocks and bee-proof hoods. The kids are four feet tall, maybe, at best, standing front of a mound of thicket and bramble that dwarfs them. The naturalist tells them there might be ten thousand bees in but one of the hives. He tells them about the spectacular maiden flight of the queen and the toil of the workers and the drones. The students learn how to remove the frames and get the comb. Later, they will help process the honey and bring jars of the stuff home to their families.

The cycle repeats itself. Last year’s beekeepers are today’s 3rd graders. Yesterday’s 3rd grade is now a cohort of middle schoolers. And so it goes. Two years ago was Oak Hill’s 25th anniversary. (The celebration year was lost due to COVID-19.) There are teenagers in our high school that used to be second graders here. Now they walk the sharp, geometric halls of the two McGehee buildings and they talk of college and they gossip about Mies van der Rohe Sierpinski’s infinite polygon. They’ve got large plans and dreams. Many are already world travelers—they have been to Mexico and Guatemala or Costa Rica with our Spanish teachers. They’ve seen Europe or Asia or Africa. They hum with teenage energy.

But they used to be 2nd graders.

Oak Hill School sprawls over seventy-two acres. It used to be a ranch. In places, one can see the trails and the old pastureland. Some of the original buildings remain—integrated and repurposed. The farmhouse, with its massive fireplace and view of Mt. Pisgah, is now a library, administrative offices, and a Pre-K classroom. An old red-walled barn is made over into a 21st century art studio—see a visiting ceramicist turn a pot on a wheel in front of an audience of students; watch him teach the students to get their hands dirty and do it themselves. And that orchard where the bees flitter about, the naturalist tells me the trees are at least 65 years old. Yet they still produce fruit, still are pollinated by the bees.

The old and the new, juxtaposed— outbuildings made relevant again, modernized, new academic halls designed to find harmony with the landscape, many-windowed, sharp-angled. Another dilapidated barn is rebuilt into a tech center and wired with high-speed internet and made home to 3D printers. Logs crackle and burn in the fireplace in what was the family room of the farmhouse during a parents’ meeting on a rainy winter’s day.

A mated pair of ring-necked doves has taken up residence in a magnolia tree next to the playground and basketball court. They coo and flap through the garden, watch with amusement the curious doings that take place on the monkey bars during recess.

Oak Hill School began as an idea with maybe forty kids initially enrolled. One the first day of school this year, one hundred and seventy-five make up our student body. It’s been steady but managed growth. To expand too fast or swell too large might mean the loss of precious things. But OHS is evolving, changing like the seasons. The two McGehee buildings now open—McGehee East occupied by science labs, rooms for AP Social Science classrooms, and a commons area for high school students and home to their lockers; McGehee West wrapped around an intimate black-box experimental theater, rehearsal spaces, and a beautiful outdoor amphitheater. There are of course plans for future expansion, blueprint schematic of dreams—perhaps a new athletic field, perhaps a new gym. Everything is possible. In a few years, it is expected we’ll see an enrollment of two hundred students—a roundness there, a symmetry. But always keeping that vigilance that nothing be lost. Oak Hill is intimate and close-knit, yet incredibly warm, friendly, and inviting. Our sense of family is everything and our feeling of community makes us what we are. We’ve been around long enough now that alumni return to visit with children of their own. They come back again, look to find what they remember, see what has changed.

Perhaps this is the lesson the bees are teaching us, too. 

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