Janice Griffin Gallery


William Hartwick - Del Norte’s Invisible Backpack & The Principal of the Matter

In the Spring of 2018, William Hartwick, whom everyone in his small town knew as Billy, moved across the State line from Crescent City, California, to Brookings, Oregon, seven hours’ drive by car from Portland, a distant metropolis he had visited only once. Brookings was where locals from Crescent City did their grocery shopping, and for Billy this new Arcadia surrounded by giant redwood trees was a world away from the uncomely stomping ground he had known all of his 53 years of life. Children were drawn to Billy as Billy was pulled to the forests and streams surrounding his house to hunt for duck and fish for steelhead. Billy, in fact, was a Pied Piper of sorts, school principal of Pine Grove Elementary, Del Norte County’s most tenured principal, truth be told, where he had excelled in exemplary leadership for 18 years. Kids were instinctively and instantly charmed by this man because he was seamlessly able to bridge the gap between the blank slate of their innocence and the adult world to which he somewhat uncomfortably belonged. Child and man-child shared an uncommon trust relationship built upon a secret communication understood only by the very young and the young-at-heart.

On March 15th, however, the world Principal Hartwick had so agreeably inhabited came abruptly to an end. Having had his contract from the Board of Education renewed every year for 18 consecutive years, with no warning, Billy was informed that 2018 would be his last term heading up Pine Grove Elementary, and that his six-figure income would continue only until June 30th. Needless to say, this came as an upset, not only to Billy, but also to the entire parent body that had faithfully entrusted the welfare of its children to him. Billy pressed for disclosure. None was forthcoming, despite the tenacious backing of his entire community, co-workers, administrators and parents and children alike. During a public comment hearing at a regularly scheduled school board meeting on April 12th, 2018, Kevin Hartwick, a prominent local businessman and William Hartwick’s brother, had this to say, “I submit Mr. Hartwick did nothing wrong that rises to the level of punishment the district is trying to impose. The district’s concerns about Mr. Hartwick, represented after their quote-unquote investigation, barely rose to a level that required a quiet talk or coaching about responding to a stressful situation. There is nothing in Mr. Hartwick’s employee file that we have in our possession that indicates any material performance issues (that would) require any corrective action. In a word, there’s nothing there.” William Hartwick’s attorney, George Mavris, wrote this to the local Crescent City newspaper, Del Norte Triplicate: “One would imagine that Mr. Hartwick must have committed some egregious act of misconduct for the board to justify its action against him, however, no such conduct has occurred nor has the school board provided any rational basis for its actions. Rather, the adverse action against Mr. Hartwick appears to be based upon some personal animus against Mr. Hartwick.”

Can you fathom the shock and awe wreacked upon an individual who had risen with an unblemished sterling record to the pinnacle of his career? Principal Hartwick even looked the part with short-back-and-sides haircut, like a sensible banker. His closet, filled with approachable suits and some fifty brightly-colored neckties declared his optimistic and cheerful nature. Billy believed in the Power of Positive Thinking, which is so strong in America, and that good comes to those who are good. Billy deemed himself to be good and, as an educator, he had the perfect surname, Hartwick, because he began knowing in his heart that every student entrusted to his care was already a winner.

As one of Billy’s own two children by his first wife, to whom Billy had been married for eighteen years, you had your father’s undivided attention in time of crisis. In your dad’s mind, undivided meant undivided. “Never come between me and my children,” Billy would tell his friends. If you were a golfing buddy or even a lady friend, talking on the telephone one evening when an unexpected situation arose with one of his kids, Billy would stop mid-sentence leaving you wondering if he had fallen into an abyss, never to be heard from again. An invitation to dinner would be short-circuited last minute, even after the roast was already in the oven! Principal Hartwick showed the same fierce dedication to all the school children under his care. He was proud to tell that he knew each and every one by name, and that he knew each of their parents by name, within days of assuming his headship.

I met William Hartwick by chance in the summer of 2018 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a place to which I had relocated after living for decades in Portland, Oregon. William had come to town of his own initiative, seeking the relief he so desperately needed from the cruel and unnecessary stress he suffered as a result of his untimely release from his position as school principal. He had spiraled into a near suicidal hell. Life Healing Center, the State’s premier behavioral health, substance abuse, trauma and addiction center, to their great credit, was the only clinic in the country that would agree to fit Hartwick, on short notice, into their busy schedule. Who can say whether or not the crossing of our destinies is pure coincidence? After hours of consultation with trained medical experts, the friend I now call “Billy”, taking the morning off, crossed the threshold into just one of over one hundred galleries on Santa Fe’s famous Canyon Road, one of the most acclaimed art gallery avenues on the globe. Hartwick stepped into Marigold Arts, a small, unassuming space located up a flight of steps on the shady side of the street in the City Different. It is here that my paintings are represented and where I am the art director. When William Hartwick appeared one sunlit Saturday, two worlds collided, the country-boy world embodied by Crescent City, California and mine, a world of highfalutin sophistication embodied by the ancient medieval university conglomerate of Oxford, England. This ivory tower, I told Billy, was where I had grown up. It is where Kings and Queens still send their daughters and sons to be primed for a life of privilege and wealth.

Hartwick and I were amused by the stark differences in our backgrounds. I spoke three languages and Billy, although he possessed a Bachelor’s degree in child psychology, a Bachelor’s degree in marketing and an Associate’s degree in criminology, considered himself to be functionally illiterate. He was a savant with a perfect brain, his neurologist had told him, yet he struggled with where to place commas in text and had the annoying habit of ending his sentences with that so frequently misplaced preposition, “at.” Yet Billy owned a significant art collection and loved creativity. He took a revolutionary stance within the classroom because, where most teachers, bound by convention, stuck to outmoded methods of instruction, Principal Hartwick encouraged children to learn experientially in the manner most appropriate to their unique needs. If a child performed better in reading standing up than sitting down, she/he was permitted to stand. Principal Hartwick had the certain knowledge that every child came into this world with innate curiosity, a foundational inquisitiveness that could catalyze imagination and nourish a life-long love of learning. He emphasized immersion in the stuff of life over book study and rote memorization of information. He worked tirelessly in an environment of time clocks, schedules and brain-numbing bureaucracy to shift outmoded systems and bring them into a reality that worked for children, not against them. “Every child can learn, and our instruction supports that belief,” was the mantra, still in place even now, which Hartwick insisted upon for Pine Grove Elementary. In small-town Crescent City, Billy’s faith in his provocative methods could be construed as intransigent, his steadfastness arrogance, yet they proved consistently successful. During the April 12th public comment hearing, a parent of one of Pine Grove School’s students, stated, “(Mr. Hartwick) came into a failing school, a school that was getting closed down, possibly, and look what he did with it.” Principal Hartwick literally turned Pine Grove Elementary into one of the most sought after schools in the district. In the same hearing, he was profiled as being an “outstanding role model and a champion for children who always went above and beyond the call of duty.” Principal Hartwick was gratified, and rightly so. Not for a split second did he flirt with the idea of any change in his status until the age of retirement. His compass pointed true north, and Billy was content, as content as contented knew how to be, married four months to a new wife in carefree Crescent City.

Billy Hartwick and I conversed at length. It became clear that we shared a common perspective – he, through his power as an educator, was an intensely passionate and unflinching advocate for children, and I, through the power of my paintings and writing, was an advocate for the strength, beauty and freedom of women. Within the dominant Patriarchal culture, a culture fast descending from top down into the depths of hatred and violence, women and children, we agreed, possessed the shared vulnerability of being the citizens least supported by our nation’s resources. We were both part of a paradigm shift toward greater equality for women and children and, indeed, for all minorities, including people of color, differing sexual orientation and those with disabilities. Along with outspoken campaigners within the #MeToo movement, we were caterwauling above the din of mediocrity, Billy identifying all of these so-called groups as carrying an “invisible backpack”, a hidden trauma buried deep within that arose from society’s biased and prejudicial attitudes toward them. The trauma these humans housed in their bodies was a trauma Billy now shared as a result of his unfair treatment by the Del Norte County Board of Education. “We don’t live in a binary world,” he said, “think of it this way - just as the color red, because it rests on an infinitely expansive rainbow scale, is no one hue, so all people, no matter what age, whether female, male, black, white, brown, yellow, gay, straight, disabled or unimpaired, exist on a continuum that is normal.”

Change comes quickly when we’re not looking for it and when we least expect it. Having comfortably resided in one spot all of his life, Billy first moved across the State line to escape the prying gaze of his community. Then came Santa Fe. His creative sensibility matched that of artists such as myself that he met in the Land of Enchantment and, perhaps for the first time, Billy’s own natural inclinations gushed to the fore like water from a hydrant. He had been nurturing the minds of children for decades, ignoring his own impulses. Billy was suddenly a wild mustang smelling green grass and racing to meet it on the other side of the mountain. He contemplated writing a book about trauma, the trauma he was suffering from, and the trauma others had suffered in similar horrific situations. The act of putting pen to paper itself would be healing therapy. Billy was an excellent public lecturer and considered becoming a motivational speaker and consultant, forming a company he would call, Restart Your Heart. Life felt as if it had been about resuscitation and a return from what was a metaphoric death. But Billy also had flair for cooking, perhaps his deepest love, preferring to invent dishes based on flavor and texture combinations rather than follow any recipe. Billy was a chef, and for years he had shared delectable amuse- bouches created out of his genius with small-time gastronomes whose hole-in-the-wall restaurants he frequented. Pub owners and patrons alike adored Billy; mostly, they adored his bacon-jam-blue-cheese-ground-sirloin-burger on a freshly baked pretzel roll. Now, however, Billy suddenly and shockingly surmised it was time to put his imagination into service for himself. With his potent artistic and entrepreneurial inclination, perhaps he would open an art showroom with the backdrop of a restaurant to entice intrepid buyers. Billy had had the epiphany that was beginning to change his existence forever.

So what of Billy now? Seduced by the Land of Enchantment, Billy has abandoned his past and settled in New Mexico. “I’ve never lived in a cultured city,” he says. No longer a short-back-and-sides type of guy, he sports a goatee and a man bun. Having sold his all-terrain four-wheeler, Billy these days drives a ubiquitous Subaru. He attends chanting concerts by the likes of Snatam Kaur and her ethereal band. A lawsuit against representatives of the Board of Education has been filed. Billy’s dream of an art-showroom-and-restaurant-combo is becoming fact. Billy is writing his book, The Invisible Backpack. There are those uninformed individuals who will always believe that the higher authority is inevitably in the right, that there must be some undercurrent of wrongdoing if the finger is pointed a person’s way. Thus we capitulate to and remain silent in the face of power, even though history tells us that very frequently, individuals become victimized through no fault of their own. We know that from ancient generations forward, women were burned at the stake, being labeled witches, shape-shifters who changed with the times and who changed times, simply for appearing or acting unorthodox. Are not visionary thinkers, magical figures of formidable creativity, empowerment and general badassery required for original contribution to the culture to transpire? Principal William Hartwick, by committing to the brave and electrifying stance that he did, unveiled poetry within the souls of his students, transformative, revivifying, dazzling, unnerving and intensely poignant advancements that could never occur by sticking with the tired old mold. William Hartwick is the here that we have, and we’ve never needed it more than we need it now.

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Kat Topaz