COVELO — Of all the places where something remarkable might be happening, you wouldn’t peg the modular building behind Round Valley High School on a sleepy afternoon in June. But there, underneath the whir of the air conditioning unit in an auxiliary classroom, a teacher and her students were breathing life back into a language.
Cheryl Tuttle’s Wailaki 2 class was sparsely attended last Monday afternoon. It was, after all, the last week of school, and the lesson had narrowed to practicing speeches the students would deliver in this native California tongue at the local graduation ceremonies.
Among the students was Round Valley senior Shayleena Britton, the Press Democrat’s Small-School Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
So, first a quick word about the All-Empire awards. Each year, athletic directors of our many local schools, which stretch from the Marin coast to the wilds of Lake and Mendocino counties, nominate their top athletes and scholar-athletes, male and female. Members of the PD’s sports staff then gather to eat pizza and comb through a giant binder of entries to vote for the best of the best.
It’s a brutal process. Every year we run across students who are All-Empire in one sport, first-team all-league in another and a solid contributor in a third, while holding down a 4.2 GPA and doing wonderful things in the community. And we eliminate them, because some other kid is slightly more impressive.
This year, when we got to the Small-School Female Scholar-Athletes, one girl leaped off the page at us. It was Britton. She’s one of the top small-campus basketball players in the region, and a good volleyball player, too. She is class president and has something close to an unweighted 4.0 in the classroom.
But it was the work she’s doing in Tuttle’s classroom that made Britton an irresistible pick. She recently received a $10,000 Dreamstarter grant from Running Strong for American Indian Youth, a nonprofit affiliated with the great Olympic champion Billy Mills, to add a social-media component to the reintroduction of Wailaki.
And what did you do in high school? I played mediocre baseball and worked summers at Jack-in-the-Box.
The Wailaki language project is the brainchild of Tuttle and Rolinda Want, both teachers at Round Valley High. Tuttle is also a mentor to various students undertaking larger projects, and has been principal of Round Valley Elementary School, too. Somehow she does all that without living in Covelo. She drives 65 barfy miles from Ukiah most weekdays.
A few years ago, Tuttle and Want started talking about adding a Native American language to the courses at Round Valley High.
And bear with me, but here we need to take another detour and talk about Round Valley.
To get there, you depart Highway 101 north of Willits and head northeast on Highway 162. You follow stony Outlet Creek, then the Eel River before pulling away from the streambeds and climbing into the pines.
After miles of switchbacks comes an unexpected reward: a sweeping view of a pretty little valley surrounded on four sides by forested hills. Round Valley.
In the middle of the plateau is the dusty community of Covelo, population 1,255. It’s a town of pickups, cowboy hats, chickens in backyards and pastured horses. It isn’t entirely Native American, but the culture is dominant here.