HELENA – It was payback time, though it’s unclear who benefited more from Arlee High School teacher Anna Baldwin’s relationship with Angela McLean.

Was it Baldwin’s students, who not only got a sit-down with Gov. Steve Bullock at the Capitol Tuesday, but then walked over to the governor’s residence to eat lunch with him?

Or was it Bullock, who coaxed a song out of Arlee student Eula Fullerton on the baby grand piano in the governor’s home?

“This was a blast,” decided Jessica Knoll, who snapped a selfie with Bullock in his living room before the governor headed back to work. “It’s definitely an opportunity I’ll remember forever.”

Lots of classrooms come to Helena to explore Montana’s capital and Capitol, but not many are invited to the governor’s house for lunch.

A lot of dominoes had to fall for Fullerton, Knoll and 18 other Arlee students to get their face-to-face meeting with Bullock.

First, former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., had to be appointed ambassador to China.

Then, Bullock had to name his lieutenant governor, John Walsh, to replace Baucus.

That left another job Bullock needed to fill, and he chose McLean, a former member of the Board of Regents and a teacher at Anaconda High School, as the state’s new lieutenant governor about three months ago.

The bottom immediately fell out on a classroom project Baldwin and her students were working on with McLean and her students, after McLean was tapped by Bullock.

Baldwin gave the governor some good-natured grief about it at an event both were attending later, but it led Bullock to ask if there was anything he could do to make up for “stealing” McLean.

You don’t get to be Montana’s Teacher of the Year – which Baldwin is – by letting an opportunity like that pass by.

And so Baldwin invited herself and her students to lunch with the governor.

***

The 14 seniors, six juniors and one sophomore first joined Bullock in the governor’s reception room at the Capitol, where the flag of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes – Arlee is located on their reservation – is one of seven tribal flags displayed.

Baldwin’s students had prepared three short videos where they talked about Bullock’s education priorities: college completion, dropout prevention and early childhood education.

There were some technical difficulties in the reception room, and the governor eventually crowded everyone into his much smaller office so he could watch the videos with them on his computer.

In the meantime, Bullock participated in a Socratic circle with the students as they discussed questions Baldwin posed related to all three priorities.

Is college for everyone? Most agreed it is not, but Bullock pointed out that people who continue their education beyond high school typically earn more than $6,000 a year more over their lifetimes than those who don’t.

That helped Arlee student Josh Reed on Baldwin’s next talking point: Agree or disagree, a college degree isn’t worth its cost.

If you earned more than $6,000 more a year, every year – “it’s $6,361 to be exact,” Bullock interjected – “then technically, it would be worth its cost eventually,” Reed said.

Bullock winced when Baldwin posed this question: Is preschool just another way for government to take over the minds of our youth?

“Disagree!” the governor said. Ninety percent of a child’s brain is developed before kindergarten, Bullock said, and if they’re not reading proficiently by third grade, they are four times as likely to drop out of high school.

“Some of them wind up in our correctional system, some in our social services system,” Bullock said.

Studies show many students drop out because of problems in the home, Baldwin said. Is it the state’s responsibility to combat those problems?

No, said student Alexis Shick.

“It should be your responsibility, and your community’s,” Shick said, “not government’s. You should be pushing yourself” to get an education.

***

The conversation was much more relaxed once Bullock led the students to the nearby governor’s residence for lunch.

“I grew up three blocks from here,” the governor told the Arlee students as they sat in his living room eating pizza. “Last week a guy told me, ‘You didn’t get far, did you?’ But this is the same neighborhood I ran around in as a kid. I used to deliver the newspaper to this house.”

Having students visit his office isn’t unusual, but having them over to his home is rare, Bullock said. The only other time it’s happened in his first term, the governor said, was when he was jogging and ran into his old high school cross-country coach.

“So I invited the team over for a spaghetti feed at the house,” he said.

Baldwin told him about meeting President Barack Obama earlier this month when teachers of the year from all 50 states congregated at the White House.

Bullock pulled out his cellphone and showed a photograph he snapped of his daughter, Alex, being hugged by First Lady Michelle Obama. There’s an annual dinner for the governors of all 50 states at the White House, Bullock said. His wife didn’t want to go, and so the governor took his daughter.

It was her classmates who encouraged Eula Fullerton to play a song on the piano in the governor’s residence.

It took some convincing, with Bullock joining in the cries of “C’mon, Eula.”

When Fullerton had trouble reading the music for “River Flows In You” off her iPhone, the governor went searching through his house for an iPad for her to use.

She’d better not be playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” after all the work it took to get her to the piano, Bullock kidded her.

It wasn’t, and as the young Arlee student played the beautiful song on the piano in his living room, the governor of Montana had his cell phone out and was snapping pictures of Eula Fullerton.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or by email at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

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