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Choosing farming over college

Calder Katz at The Learning Garden
Calder Katz at The Learning Garden
Helena Liikanen-Regner/The California Report

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This weekend marks graduation day for many college students. But for a growing number of young people, college is no longer an aspiration. For the California Report, Helena Liikanen Renger introduces us to a student who's choosing to forgo a college education.

On a sunny Friday morning The Learning Garden of Venice High School is full of busy teenagers: one of them watering the lettuce, another one planting new seeds.

“These purplish lettuces are chards. That’s a patch of carrots. We planted them not too long ago. Then you have this wavy lettuce over here. We have a lot of this,” 18-year-old Calder Katz explains.

The daily landscaping class is his favorite. “Farming and growing things, that is almost like being a parent, you know,” he says. “You plant these seeds, you nurture them and you make them become as good as possible. You make them the best that they can be.”

For Calder, who lives in Mar Vista, actually enjoying a subject in school hasn’t come easily. He has never really wanted to fit in. 

“I try to be different. I have always thought that being weird is really cool,“ he says. But in school being different isn’t always appreciated: Calder is expected to follow the rules and complete assignments like everybody else, which for him is sometimes hard to understand. He would prefer learning in his own way. 

“School hasn’t been my focus,” he says. “Learning is my focus. I love learning. I really think that the whole school system is sort of fitting a person into a box. Like writing an essay. That’s such a standardized thing. You have to have five paragraphs, the introduction, core paragraphs and then the conclusion. Maybe you don’t want to write it that way. Maybe you want to start it like a movie, where it starts in the end. That doesn’t fly with schools.”

Calder hit bottom five years ago, when he failed seventh grade. “Nobody else did that,” he says. “That is a really hard thing to live through next year, because everybody knows. You get picked on.”

Katz’s father, Alan Katz, is an artist and understands his son’s frustrations with school. “We are all like rejects from the school system,” he says. “We are alternative thinkers. We tend to learn our own ways and school puts you into a rigid regimentation, which is geared toward creating a product rather than a human being.”

Katz has even encouraged his son to not rush into college but rather to first see the world. “I think kids go into college way too soon,” he says. “They need to spend some time and explore the world and find out what they are interested in. Not just do what their parents say.”

Back in the garden Katz’s landscape and horticulture teacher, Diane Pollock, holds fresh broccoli in her hands. “This is your chance to forge! Go and rob the garden!” she shouts. The students follow Pollock’s instructions and are soon snaffling cauliflower and green peas they found in the bushes.  

“They need to explore,” Pollock says, smiling. “They need to enjoy what the earth is like so they can go out and work with and find out what is important to save their environment.”

Here Calder feels happy. He doesn’t have to write perfectly structured essays or follow unnecessary rules. “Miss Pollock is not a very strict person. She lets you be as creative as you want,” he says. “I would have never expected to be on the top of the class. I feel like I am actually quite useful. People come to me to find out more about gardening. I have never had that aura to me.”

Gardening has given Calder so much that, after his graduation in June, he will head to Sweden to work on an organic farm for three months. He is not in a hurry to continue his studies.

“I need to have these sort of breaks,” he says. “Having a year or so of just focusing on myself, focusing on learning more from the world and the people, not just teachers – I feel that would benefit me more than immediately going to college.”

Calder Katz believes that when he one day comes back from his journey, he will be a completely different person.