In Case of Fire

from Michael Nitaix

The schoolhouse was well built, but unfinished. Set at the top of a hill overlooking what we euphemistically called “downtown Ananda,” the only access was up a poorly maintained, deeply rutted tractor trail.

Not that it mattered to us. We had moved from a converted chicken coop, so this was luxury indeed. There were six children and one teacher: me.

This was 1973. Everything about Ananda Village was primitive in those days. Education for Life as a worldwide movement, the Village as only one of a global network of spiritual communities, nice houses, paved roads—these things didn’t even live yet in our imagination. We were a happy group of pioneers, wading through mud in the winter and dust in the summer, living in trailers and teepees and having a fabulous time doing it.

My resume to lead the school was meager: one year of experience in the public school system. But that was enough to convince me there had to be a better way to educate children.

At Ananda Village I found a group of parents who shared my hope, but with no better plan than I had! The seven children who became my school were simply running around the community getting into mischief. Anything was better than that!

Within a year the community had the shell of the schoolhouse ready. The children and I were already having a great time and the new facility just made it better.

One day at recess the children became very excited as they watched a car making its way up the tractor trail. No one had ever attempted to do that before! It turned out to be an official from the Office of the California State Fire Marshal. He was there to inspect the school. We certainly hadn’t invited him. Someone must have told him we were there.

I greeted him cordially, but he didn’t smile in return. He just gave a perfunctory greeting, pulled out his clipboard, and began walking around the building taking official-looking notes.

Finally he spoke. “There has to be a way for a fire truck to get in here in case of emergency. You need to put in a paved road to connect the schoolhouse to the public road.”

I was in shock. The public road was a mile away.

“How much do you think that will cost?” I stammered.

“About $500,000,” he said. “I’ll be back in three weeks and I expect to see substantial progress by then.” As he turned to leave he added, “Or else I’ll shut down the school.”

I operated the school on $50 a month, and that included my salary. No, that’s not a misprint; I haven’t left off any zeros. Everything at Ananda at that time was done on a shoestring—not even the shoestring of a man’s work boot, but the shoestring of a child’s sneaker. That inspector might as well have asked me to pay off the national debt.

“Well, Master,” I said, speaking inwardly to my Guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, “obviously, you are going to have to take care of this. There is nothing I can do.”

Then to myself I said, “No point in wasting energy worrying about it.” About three weeks later the children were again excited to see a car struggling up the tractor trail. Reluctantly I went out to face what I assumed would be the promised return visit from the inspector. Was this going to be our last day of school?

A different man, with a much friendlier expression, emerged from the car. The other guy, he explained, had decided to switch to the Arson Inspection Division. I made no comment, but thought to myself, “Tracking down arsonists would suit him just fine.”

As the new man walked around the building, I waited nervously for him to ask about the paved road.

“The issue here is fire safety,” he said finally. “We don’t want the children to get trapped in a burning building.” I nodded in agreement, but said nothing.

Looking around with a pleased smile on his face, the inspector said, “But there is a lot of open space around the schoolhouse, so I don’t think that would be much of a problem. What you need is a good warning system.”

“Yes,” I said rather tentatively, expecting the next request to be an expensive sprinkler system.

“I was thinking,” the inspector continued, “that a good whistle would do the trick. Something really loud!”

“A whistle?!” I repeated. Then quickly added, “Yes, sir. A fine idea. A whistle. We can do that!”

He handed me a paper to sign. “This is your promise,” he said as I wrote my name in the space he indicated, “that you’ll take care of the situation.”

Mentally I made a note to set aside $1.25 from the monthly budget to comply with the California State Fire Marshal’s request.

For the rest of the year I faithfully wore that whistle around my neck whenever school was in session.