The Orme school sits on a flat stretch of lowland amid the undulating desert hills of Arizona, 65 miles north of Phoenix and three miles by unpaved road from Interstate 17. The vast country's rich, red earth bears yucca, prickly pear and sagebrush, and on the boarding school's campus, dirt walkways weave past cottonwoods and sycamores.
The 163 boys and girls who attend the school, which runs from grade seven through grade 12, routinely stroke potbellied pigs, pat the brown flanks of mother cows and listen to the soft, wind-borne bleating of a herd of Angora goats on a neighboring ranch. In the hush of an early evening, it is hard to conceive of a place less like Orme than the cacophonous, crime-plagued streets of Harlem.
"When I got here I was like, Where are the sidewalks?" says Ronnell Rock, 18, Orme's student body president. "I'd never been anywhere so quiet and peaceful, where I could leave my door open and feel safe. Sometimes I'd see a cow out my window and think I was in a movie."
Ronnell is one of six Harlem youths attending Orme and one of four playing for the school's basketball team, which was 19-3 at the end of the regular season and preparing to make a strong run at the Arizona state title in Class IA. After years of playing blacktop ball near their homes in the bleak projects of Harlem's west side, the four have brought to this oasis a dose of city style.
"People are amazed by us," says Bobby Meredith, 17, a junior forward. "They've never seen some of the things we do on the court. And when I go around wearing one pant leg up and a tag on my cap, people stare. They like it, though. The way everybody walks by and says, 'Hi,' 'Hi,' I feel like I'm in Happy Country."
Ronnell and Bobby came to Orme as Mobil scholars, in 1991 and '92, respectively. This need-based academic program was established in 1977 by Orme alumnus and former Mobil executive Winston Marshall III to enable one Harlem teenager to come to the school each year. All the Mobil scholars—who are provided with room and board, tuition and airfare—have graduated from Orme, and all but one have gone to college.
The four other current Mobil scholars do not play basketball, but Ronnell helped bring two other players—his cousin Bernard Rock and their friend Joe Harris, 17—to Orme on standard financial aid. Now, away from the dangers of their inner city, they are thriving. Each year an admissions officer from Orme travels widely, talking up the school. Today Orme's student body includes Saudis, Koreans, Native Americans, Germans and even a crown prince from the north of Pakistan.
The Harlem group fits well into this astoundingly diverse mix. The boys and girls cast aside their differences and take easily to one another. Ronnell's closest friends on the school's basketball team are Scott Roberts, the son of a prosperous land developer in California, and Alvin Saenz, who is an Apache Indian. During school breaks, Ronnell likes to spend a few days with Alvin at his family's reservation in New Mexico.
"I think that when you live close to the earth like this, class and culture lines tend to disappear," says Charlie Orme Jr., who was the school's headmaster for 42 years, until 1987. "That's why we're able to have all kinds of kids here, and for the most part, they get along."
In 1929 Charlie Orme Sr., the owner of a 40,000-acre cattle ranch, started the school to educate his three young children and the four children of his ranchers. He hired an elementary school teacher to come to the ranch, and class was held in a rust-colored adobe hut that serves today as the schoolhouse for Orme's 14 middle schoolers, all of whom board.