Everyone at Willard Alternative High School noticed it Friday, but Sam Alderson Lemann put it into words.
He was one of 31 high school seniors honored at an early graduation celebration after the first trimester, and one of 100 or more students, family, friends, faculty and staff in the jam-packed upstairs lounge of the old school building on South Sixth Street West.
“I’ve been told,” Alderson Lemann said after he ambled to the front of the room, “that at graduations at other schools, kids are smiling a lot and bein’ happy and all that crap. It’s not the case here because no one’s ready to get rid of each other yet.”
Some spoke eloquently, others just long enough to say thanks or goodbye. No one lasted the hour with dry eyes.
Principal Jane Bennett and counselor Bonnie Fergerson warned of as much beforehand.
Get ready, Bennett said, for “one of the most awesome experiences on the planet.”
This was the 24th graduation celebration since the alternative school was established in 2001, and the largest after the first trimester, Bennett said. The 31 graduates pushed to more than 800 the number of students Willard has helped complete requirements for high school diplomas.
Those who are finished now will be invited to formal graduation ceremonies at the University of Montana next June.
Unlike other Missoula schools, Willard operates on six-week grading periods, two per trimester.
There are lots of things at Willard that are unlike other schools, and it was clear Friday that’s part of what will be hard to leave behind.
“You actually get to act like you want here,” Nick Kolberg said. “This is one of the few schools that’s going to not censure you around every corner. This is one of the few schools that’ll help you find your passion.”
It did for Kolberg. He languished for two years at Big Sky High School before he was accepted into Willard.
“I had very little writing experience, if any. I got into journalism class and the next thing I knew it was, ‘Whoa, this is something I like to do,’ ” said Kolberg, who edited the past eight editions of the school newspaper, the Willard Wire.
He started with an opinion piece on censorship and followed with an essay in which he “tried to explain the differences between ethics, morals and philosophy,” he said.
“It just blew me away,” said Vanessa Kolberg, who had suffered with her son through those trying early years of school. “I’m reading it and it was, like, this is a New Yorker magazine kind of thing – real deep.”
She said she asked Nick how his friends liked it. “He goes, ‘Oh, some of them didn’t really get it.’
“I’m like, I’m not sure that I do.”
Nick said he had a revelation, “not only that they were all interconnected with the article, but that I wanted to write for the rest of my life.”
The graduating seniors were the self-professed dead-end kids of Missoula County, the kind who “just don’t thrive as well in the big school as they do in the smaller school,” Bennett said.
Before he applied and was accepted into Willard, Ben Riggs tried Sentinel High School.
“I found it pretty terrible there,” he said. “Nobody ever really cared what I did, so I did what I wanted, which was nothing. Now here I am.”
“Four years ago, I never thought I would have ever gotten graduated at all,” Bryce Jeszenka told the assembly. He came home every day from Frenchtown School “with bruises everywhere, from being thrown against my locker, punched and pinched and all that.”
“But I’m glad that happened,” he concluded. “If it didn’t, I never would have been here. I never would have met all you people.”
Lacy Taylor said she hated school and went to a lot of them before Willard.
“I never wanted to go to school. I used to cry every day. I was miserable. I didn’t want to deal with people,” she said.
The acceptance she found at Willard from the first day she got there was “just amazing,” said Taylor. “The best feeling ever.”
“It’s obvious that they have never given up on themselves and that they took advantage of the opportunity to celebrate their alternativeness by going to this school,” Bennett said. “You noticed how many of them today said to the underclassmen: Keep Willard Willard.”
Most thanked their parents and teachers for helping them reach this point, referring to the latter by first name.
“You’re pretty cool,” Aubree Campbell told one through tears. “We butted heads, but we’re good.”
The Willard student body is kept at 150. Bennett said a new group will be replacing the 31 graduates after Thanksgiving. There’s always a waiting list.
“You applied to be here, all of you,” Kolberg told those who weren’t graduating. “You don’t want to take the opportunity from someone else, so if you’re messing up, move over. There’s stuff being done here.”
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.