Two years ago Trent Jones was earning $9,000 a year teaching at a San Antonio elementary school and was esteemed by his superiors and students. He had been nominated as the outstanding teacher of the year by his peers. And he could not have been unhappier. "San Antonio was simply too big," he recalls, "and I was discouraged because I couldn't spend the time I thought necessary with each of my students in a large school like that." Then a job as principal-teacher-janitor of a one-room adobe schoolhouse opened up at half the pay near the west Texas town of Terlingua. Jones, who already owned 40 acres of hardscrabble desert land there, knew he had found his "way out of the rat race."
Today, as his second school year ends, Jones, 26, is virtually the entire faculty for 23 youngsters, most of whom live on ranches in what was once a mercury mining area. The pupils are spread from kindergarten through the eighth grade. Among them are boys and girls who arrived speaking only Spanish, and one retarded child.
Like Pat Conroy, whose book about teaching islanders off the South Carolina coast became the movie Conrack, Trent Jones finds that reaching his pupils is an immense challenge. Their heterogeneous backgrounds and isolation separate them by more than distance from the schoolchildren of San Antonio. Jones prepares his lessons from 53 of the most modern textbooks and has introduced a 16mm projector as a visual aid. Some of the children had never seen films or television.
"It is amazing how he's able to keep the children busy all day," observes Mrs. Katy Jenkins, a part-time classroom aide. "He'll get the first grades busy drawing and then tell them he doesn't want any questions for 15 minutes. Then he moves on to another grade level and gets them busy with, say, math. By the time he's made the rounds it's time to start all over and answer questions. He never seems to run down." Jones works constantly to augment his meager educational resourcesrebuilding an antique record player or pestering his wife, Olga, who also conducts art and music classes one day a week, to show him how to operate a sewing machine for a course in homemaking.
The curriculum isn't confined to the four adobe walls. There is lunch each day, not in a cafeteria, but on the banks of Terlingua Creek, which flows into the Rio Grande. Ardent outdoorsman Jones leads geological field trips and challenges the children of employees at Big Bend National Park 40 miles away to softball games.
Jones's educational philosophy is as casual as his blue jeans. He doesn't believe in failing anyone. "I'll give a student a test three or four times until he makes a perfect score. A kid who can take home a straight-A report card is quickly going to gain confidence in himself."
Once a month Jones and Olgawhom he met while both were students at Trinity (Texas) Universityand their 22-month-old daughter, Anna Maria, take off for a weekend of TV and tub baths in a motel at Alpine (pop. 5,971), 80 miles away. That's the closest the Joneses ever want to get to a "big city." A happy man now, Jones says, "As long as there is a school out here, this is where I want to teach."
People Magazine Article November 20, 1978
MAYBE TERLINGUA LOST THE CHILI-OFF BUT TRENT JONES GOT IT A REAL SCHOOL
In recent years Terlingua, Texas has had two touching claims to famethe World Championship Chili Cook-off and a heroic young schoolteacher named Trent Jones. Now both are gone. The chili cook-off was wooed away by Villa de la Mina, and then Jones went 80 miles down the road to Alpine. But Jones' memory lives on in Texas' only accredited one-room schoolhouse. For most of the past five years he was its principal, not to mention janitor and whole faculty. Now, having achieved accreditation plus a permanent building and two replacement teachers, Jones, 30, has returned to his own studies. He is working for a double master's degree in school administration and manual arts at Sul Ross State University.
Jones, his wife, Olga (who is getting her M.A. in art and music), and their daughters, 5 and 3, are scraping by on savings and a $300-a-semester scholarship. Olga also works part-time as a disc jockey on local station KVLF. Their other source of income is Where the Rainbows Wait, a simple, moving narrative of Jones' experience in Terlingua, co-authored with Carlton Stowers (Playboy Press, $10). Neither in the book nor in life does Jones overromanticize his own self-sacrifice. He smiles about how in 1973 he abandoned a $9,000-a-year elementary school job in San Antonio and moved to Terlingua at half the salary in order to "get out of the rat race. Almost everybody has this dream of going back to a more uncomplicated life," Trent reflects today. "Some people do it, like we did, without knowing what they're getting into."
What the Joneses got into was living in a trailer sans plumbing in a ghost town (pop. 35) too dry even to garden. Now that they're in the metropolis of Alpine (pop. 6,171), Jones sighs, "You can't appreciate how important it is to take a shower, or go out for a McDonald's hamburger. We go nuts at the Taco Bell." Still, he says he would return to Terlingua if his beloved school were in danger of losing its probationary accreditation. If not, Jones' dreamonce he's armed with his new degreesis to establish a private school "way out in the country" for city kids who are in academic trouble. "Terlingua did convince me," he says, "that there's a lot more to life than just the middle-class version of success."