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Gunn High School teacher publishes memoir

Tarn Wilson ponders memories of freewheeling island childhood in 'The Slow Farm'

An impulse to understand her vivid and exuberant, yet troubling, memories from early childhood drove Tarn Wilson to spend decades mulling them over in writing.

The memories -- of running and playing naked with her toddler sister on the Canadian Pacific shore, of her mother growing yogurt and baking bread in a wood stove in a house without electricity, of nearly drowning amid floating logs when nobody was watching -- comprise her book, "The Slow Farm," newly published by Ovenbird Books of Port Townsend, Washington.

Wilson, a teacher at Gunn High School and a published essayist, began writing down her early memories at age 17, long before having any inkling they would become the basis for a book.

When she was 3 years old in 1971, her father Jack Wilson quit his job as an early computer programmer and reconfigured the interior of an old school bus as a living unit for a family of four. He and her mother Janet drove their two preschool-age daughters from Washington, D.C., across the country to settle in a small house in a logging and mining community on Texada Island, British Columbia.

Her father had been reading Ken Kesey's adventures in his psychedelic school bus and the essays of Timothy Leary urging people to "turn on, tune in and drop out," Wilson said.

"We were off to find our own Eden. ... My sister and I were to be educated by the land, released from shame, fear, insecurities, sexual hang ups and shallow social conventions imposed by a corrupt and repressive culture," she wrote.

It didn't last long. Within two years, Janet had left Jack and taken her young daughters to Vancouver, later moving them to Colorado.

"The Slow Farm" is Wilson's examination of her two years on the island -- from age 4 to 6 -- gleaned from her own sharp recollections of a time when she believed her parents were perfect and her research, as an adult years later, about American cultural trends in the 1960s.

Had her parents, now both dead, read "Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing," which endorses freedom and independence for children as a way to nurture creativity?

Wilson doesn't know, but thinks they surely must have.

"There are wonderful and difficult things about being raised the way we were," she said in an interview.

"Some people say, 'Your parents were amazing, how brave they were, how magical,' and others would say they were child abusers. We almost drowned sometimes because they weren't watching, and we were also exposed to drug use.

"I want readers to come to their own conclusions about the choices they made -- to wrestle with that.

"I learned so much about my parents by writing this book. It was transformative for me. The book helped me to understand my life, and taught me to write."

Wilson, who has taught at Gunn for 15 years, has taken a part-time schedule to carve out time to write.

She's quick to point out she's not the only published author in Gunn's English department: Fellow teacher Ginny Moyer has published three books including, most recently, "Random MOMents of Grace: Experiencing God in the Adventures of Motherhood" (Loyola Press, 2013) and "Daily Inspirations for Women: Seasons of a Woman's Life" (Loyola Press, 2013, co-author).

"Our school has been supportive of teachers with scheduling needs," Wilson said. "It's the school culture which I'm so grateful for. For the last three years I've been able to teach in the afternoon, so I've had morning writing time which has been one of the greatest gifts of my life."

The paper-grading load of a full-time English teacher with 150 students would never afford extra time to write.

She's chosen to "live frugally," she said, to "exchange money for time to write."

The writing is often done at a red desk under a window in the office of her Sunnyvale condominium, surrounded by bookshelves. Or she'll make a "writing date" with a friend, and they'll work together at the Bean Scene Cafe in Sunnyvale or LYFE Kitchen in Palo Alto.

She also meets monthly with a writing group she's been part of for nine years. Because members have moved away and scattered from San Francisco to Placerville, they've lately been meeting in Vacaville.

"Teaching and writing both feed each other and work in opposition to each other," Wilson said.

"Teaching requires an enormous amount of time, energy and focus, which can sometimes drain creative energy, especially for an introvert. At the same time, writing can be a long and lonely process. When I've been working for ages on a piece that doesn't feel successful and rejections are pouring in, I'm so grateful to have the privilege of teaching a room full of creative, funny, energetic students.

"With the slow process of sending work out for publication, it can be years before receiving responses on a piece of writing, while teaching provides almost immediate feedback," she said. "Teachers know almost instantly if a lesson plan has been successful, and there's almost no greater thrill than a lesson plan that works -- students all engaged, laughing, making meaning together and grasping a difficult concept.

"On the other hand, on the days when I haven't felt successful as a teacher, it is a gift to be able to turn to the writing which, like other art forms, can make me feel more calm, centered and in perspective."

Wilson's teaching and writing worlds came together recently when 90 people showed up for a Sunday afternoon reading of her book in the Gunn Library, along with a reading by her friend, the poet Kasey Jueds.

"I was really nervous," she said. "People from all different stages of my life were in one room -- old college professors, students I used to teach, teachers from the school I used to teach in the Los Gatos-Saratoga district. It was wonderful."

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