100 / 365 – School’s (almost) out

LARRY LEE

We’re just a small district up here.  Thirty-three teachers in three schools — two schools next year. Twenty-eight support staff. You wouldn’t think my life would be complicated. My wife says, “That’s what they pay you for, because it’s complicated.” I’ve been at this too long, I guess. When I think about all this I get tired.

After school gets out in June, we’ll close the school up in Newcastle. It’s been coming, really since I started teaching, thirty-five years ago. The railroad was taking out the tracks up that way. The grocery closed down. The gas station. Then the Lutheran church. You know it’s trouble when the churches start to go. You see this happening all over the state. It didn’t start in the 1960s.

But you fight it. When a group of people came out to start a town, a school is one of the first things they formed. Sometimes before there was a town. Some of the towns around here started as a school. I heard Gwyneth started that way. Of course it’s not even there any more, the town or the school. Come and gone in less than a hundred years.

Once we were coming back from Montana, from the Rockies. This must have been in the 1970s, the kids were still young. One of those vacations people used to do, where you pack them all in the station wagon, even the dog, and set out for somewhere for a few weeks. Coming home, we came across the top of the state, first Montana and then into North Dakota. It was just wild, open grassland, pretty dry and sparse once we moved away from the mountains. Towns spread far apart. About the time the kids might start complaining of boredom after the last one, in that kind of whiny voice kids get when you’re thinking maybe they’re getting too old for these car trips. “Can we stop soon?” And we’d come to a town and it would small, even smaller than here. Not worth stopping in. We’d stop in places, let them run around, buy an orange soda. Nothing but space there to run around. After hours of this, a whole day of it, we were finally in the state. You could see it, the prairie getting a little bit more lush. It was feeling like home, but the kids were getting really cranky. We thought, “Let’s find a playground and let them run around.” Not long after that, there was a sign, a turnoff for a local school. We thought, That will have a playground, so we turned toward this town we didn’t know.

The town wasn’t on our map. We must have been in the far northwest corner of the state, practically in Saskatchewan. Driving in, you could see that the town was going. It wasn’t even on the highway. There were houses that looked lived in, but the cluster of buildings in the center all looked closed. But it was quiet. A beautiful summer afternoon and no sign of anyone. The school was out at the end of town, not a wood framed school but a beautiful tan brick building. It had white columns by the entrance. It looked like it had been a proud school for a proud town. But the windows were broken out all over. Someone had nailed plywood over a few of them, but more had been broken out and they had just given up. The swings and the monkey bars weren’t too rusty, so it didn’t look as though it had been closed for long. My wife and I peeked in the windows. There were desks set up as if class might still go on. A few books scattered on the floor in one room, and some scraps of paper. In another, part of the ceiling had fallen in in the middle of the room. There was plaster and broken wood all around. Some of the walls still had things pinned on them, like letters of the alphabet. On the far side of the building from where the kids were running around, it was quiet. There was a flagpole and the wind was gusting now and then, shaking at the rope. It made a rusty creaking sound up the pole. I imagined a group of teachers and children standing around the pole, hoisting it up and saying the pledge of allegiance, like we used to do on the first day of school, or when we finally had warm mornings in the Spring. Now just this rusty sound as the old rope tugged back and forth, creak creak, like the pendulum on my grandmother’s old clock.

I’ve been thinking about that school a lot this Spring. I’ve seen more of them since then, all around the state, some not so far from here. But none of them struck me quite like that one that day. It probably won’t be long before the school in Newcastle looks like that. People in town will probably try to keep the windows covered, but we won’t have the money to do it, and what for? You know where it’s going. There may not be people in the town to keep it up for long, who knows. Next year we’ll have another teacher here, but that’s all, really. Only twenty-four kids, at last count. We’ll be able to absorb all their students. We’ve been shrinking, too.

And then there is the high school. John Hogstatter, our social science teacher, is finally retiring. He’s been out half of the year. John Cross, a young teacher who went to school here, has been subbing for him a lot of the year. And coaching the basketball team. I’ve never had so many people in my ear about a teacher, whether I should hire him or not.

Some people think he did well with the basketball team. The first time they went to the state tournament since he graduated. That got a lot of people in town excited, especially because of closing the school in Newcastle. We’re not dying out. I tell you, at the beginning of the year, no one thought those kids would do so well. None of them are tall. They were terrible last year, last in our district. None of them are tall. None of them seem all that talented at the sport, and it’s been a big one in this town for a long time. We’ve never been any good at football, but we’ve had some glory days in basketball. You wouldn’t have picked this team to do so well. So some people say he’s got talent as a coach. I’m not sure. I’ve watched them practiced and he doesn’t seem that strong as a coach. He talks to them quietly. Pulls them together in huddles and then sends them out again quietly. I’ve watched him in games, games that were really close, and sometimes you want to yell out, “C’mon, shout, shout some encouragement, some direction!” He just seems to watch. But somehow they kept pulling it out. He’d be calm and quiet in those last few minutes and the boys seemed to pull miracle plays out of somewhere.

And then there are a lot of people who see just what I’m talking about, who see that he doesn’t seem to lead the boys, doesn’t command them. They think, and I have to say I usually agree with them, that the boys might have even done better with a stronger coach. There’s some merit to that.

Of course the main thing he has to do is teach social science. And I’m not sure about him. He’s from over in Turtle Mountain — he graduated high school from here, but he came to us originally from the reservation over there. Ojibwe. Studied history and education in Minnesota, Bemidji State, which is a place a lot of native Americans go. It’s right in the middle of a bunch of those reservations. He’s got a little bit different take on history, from what I hear. I haven’t seen anything directly, and I’ve watched him teach in class. But I get comments from parents. Their kids tell them things about what he says in class and they’re a little worried. I’m always glad they’re paying close attention to what their kids are doing in school.

So anyway, I feel like whatever decision I make, I’ll be danged if I do and danged if I don’t. If I don’t hire him, and the basketball team does poorly again, I’ll never hear the end of that. And if I do hire him, I’m sure I’m going to hear from the parents, both the ones who want him to lead the team better and the ones who aren’t sure about what they’re hearing about what their kids are learning about history. Then again, my wife says, I should be glad I have a steady job, that there are still lots of kids around who need to be taught and that need a good principal. This is why I get paid, she says. Growing up, I looked at people at this point in their career, with their kids gone on to college and married. They looked like they were relaxing, cruising through to the end. I keep waiting for that to start. This is sure not like what I expected life would be like now.

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