By Kirby Neumann-Rea • Of the News-Register • 

Back, and Forth: Ten years now and counting: a project about metamorphosis

Kirby Neumann-Rea/News-Register##The Tracks to ‘26 team, who started with the project as kindergartners, gather for their first group photo, in November in front of Hood River Valley High School. From left are Jess Aubert, Jack Miller, Nicholas Tuttle, Diego Bustos, Sophie Rodriguez, and Jayden Evans.
Kirby Neumann-Rea/News-Register##The Tracks to ‘26 team, who started with the project as kindergartners, gather for their first group photo, in November in front of Hood River Valley High School. From left are Jess Aubert, Jack Miller, Nicholas Tuttle, Diego Bustos, Sophie Rodriguez, and Jayden Evans.

A bit of unfinished business, of the happy kind, connects me still to the community of Hood River, where I lived from April 2000 to April 2021.

Make what you will of the fact that I started work at both the old Hood River News and the News-Register on the same date: April 1. McMinnville is home, but I have bonds to Hood River.

My son lives there; he’s been working for the same restaurant, The Mesquitery, for nearly nine years. So visiting Connal takes me back.

So do visits with Diego, Jack, Jayden, Jess, Nicholas, and Sophie.

I met these six young people, now ninth graders, when they were just kindergartners. I’ve had the privilege of watching them grow up, interviewing them once a year and sharing their changes with newspaper readers — first in the Hood River News and then the Columbia Gorge News, since its changeover in 2020.

This fall, I conducted my 10th set of “Tracks to ‘26” interviews with the students. The conversations took place in November, and were featured in articles and photos in the Gorge News edition of Dec. 28, available online.

All are students at Hood River Valley High School, thus on track to complete their K-12 education in 2026 – hence the name of the project.

I plan to do wrap-up interviews that spring. It’s so hard to believe that’s now just a little more than just three years off.

Attending the same school for the first time allowed us this fall to get the first group photo of all six, something we tried in 2014 at May Elementary School, but couldn’t manage to pull off.

Now that they are high schoolers, “Tracks” feels like it is approaching the final curve around the track. I wrote in my preface in this year’s report:

“For most of these now 15-year-olds, childhood ways are turning to approaches to adulthood: milestones or developments including learners’ permits, athletic physicals, quinceañeras, hunting licenses and at least one body piercing.

“For the first time, one of the Tracksters mentioned retirement, another expressed worry about losing a family member. We pared out a question or two and added two others, but one constant has been ‘What do you think of the future?’ As yet, few have much to say about that, but college and ‘some kind of job’ are thoughts that have settled in.

“No question ever asked in the past nine years has dealt expressly with trauma, health problems, family difficulties and other painful human realities. Yet hints of such things emerge. Dyslexia continues as a learning challenge for Nicholas. Jayden, whom we knew for the first eight years as Trinity, continues his transition from being biologically a female to a male.

“After 10 interviews, I’ve come to know each for what they are: smart and sensitive young people, open to new ideas yet content in what they know and have experienced. I sense constants in their personalities, and many of their traits are shared ones: Sophie’s wide interests, a quiet confidence in Diego, Jack’s readiness to experience the new, Jayden’s understanding of her own wisdom, Jess’s plain-spoken loquaciousness, and Nicholas’ cheerful frankness.”

This project may remind folks of a similar annual chronicle being done by OPB, and certainly of Michael Apted’s British film series, which started with “7 Up” in 1964, followed by “14 Up, “21 Up” and so forth through “63 Up” in 2019.

These films are built upon an affection for the beautiful complications of time’s passage. I know that to be my direct inspiration for proposing the project in late 2013.

I have interviewed the Tracks to ‘26 kids annually since, asking them the same questions each year.

Questions include: “What’s a challenge for you?”; “What’s a good, or impactful, thing that’s happened to you in the last few days?”; and “What are things you enjoy doing?” This year as high schoolers I first asked them, “How do you define success?” and “What worries you?”

Here’s a little about
how it works:

With the blessings of my current employer, I go back to Hood River for a day once a year. I knew when starting it there was the possibility someone else might have to complete it, but it has always been my intention to find a way to see it all the way through.

Before moving to McMinnville, I told my co-workers at Gorge News, reporter Trisha Walker and publisher Chelsea Marr, that I could pass the Tracks to ‘26 role to someone employed by the paper. But they asked me to continue in light of the relationships I have developed with the students.

Indeed, I consider these six 15-year-olds to be my friends, and am very happy to see them each year. I believe the feeling is mutual.

At its genesis in early 2014 we asked principals at the six schools each to recommend one student, assigning gender and demographics (three males, three females; three Anglo, three Latino). However, it turned out to be a 4-2 split in both categories, and with Jayden’s change it is now 5-1 in the gender category.

The core hope was that all six kids starting out with us in 2014 would finish the exercise as young adults in 2026, but we all knew there is no guarantee. I am grateful, though not surprised that, almost 10 years in, all six are still involved.

At its start, the school principals readily accepted the challenge to discern families likely to remain in the community for the duration. It is a delightful, humbling mystery, how it is they accurately sensed that those kindergartners would not only participate, but also be willing to stick with it.

For the first few years, we published the previous year’s answers as a sidebar to the students’ new answers, as a way of comparing. Due to reduced space the practice now is to summarize what they have to say.

This skirts the underlying idea, in asking recurring questions, of letting readers easily compare one year to the next. But space is space.

I envision a special section in spring 2026 reprinting each year’s set of answers, and side-by-side photos from over the years.

The interviews last 10-15 minutes, including time to take a new solo portrait. We laugh. We’ve cried once or twice. And we now have shared memories, such as my watching Nicholas at his passion of baseball.

Sophie and Jess are the most talkative, Diego and Jack the most reserved, Jayden and Nicholas in between. But all six have sparkles in their eyes and smiles on their faces.

There usually are two concluding questions that ask them to look ahead. First is “What do you think of the future?” – always a tough one that, understandably, has yet to yield much insight. Then comes, “What do you think you want to do after you graduate?”

Jayden’s answer to that was particularly illuminating and, indeed, wise. This kind-hearted person, who now prefers pronouns he and they, responded:

“I haven’t really thought that far ahead yet, honestly. I try to focus more on what’s going on now, so I can try not to get my hopes up too much in case it doesn’t go the way I want it to, because I know that life almost never goes the way you want it to go. It feels like what is best for me to do.”

A particular “Tracks”
memory I regard as pleasantly chilling – in fact it is a prescient through-line from the outset in 2014.

The kids were in first grade, In response to the question, “What’s something you’ve learned recently?” Sophie replied, “We’re learning about geology. Metamorphous rocks.”

Surprised that someone so young was learning such a big word, I gave her pen and paper and asked her spell it. She thought for a moment, then wrote, “METAMORFESS.”

That piece of paper, and a photo of it, are in the “Tracks to ‘26” archives at the Gorge News office.

In the moment, it struck me as solid effort at a big scientific word for a 7-year-old. Yet I soon realized it was much more than that.

A first-grader’s moment of learning encapsulated the spirit and purpose of “Tracks to ’26.” The moment stands for me as an inspiring precursor to the entire project, for the single word that Sophie invoked is what the whole thing is about: metamorphosis.

Kirby Neumann-Rea served as editor of the Hood River News and its successor Columbia Gorge News before taking the reins at the News-Register in 2021.


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