By the time the dust settled on the so-called "Story of Stuff" debate, Big Sky High School teacher Kathleen Kennedy wasn't sure she wanted to teach any more.

But as the teaching community, University of Montana professors and much of Missoula rallied to her defense, Kennedy found herself revitalized and ready again for the classroom.

"I realized that there's nothing short of our future at stake, and I knew I had a role to play in that," she said Friday.

Her performance in that role has now earned her a national honor from an environmental group that has fashioned its award after another well-known Montanan, Evel Knievel.

It's called the EcoDareDevil Award, and Kennedy will receive it next Friday in Butte, Knievel's hometown, in a ceremony at Montana Tech. That's World Water Monitoring Day, which makes sense given that the award is bestowed by a group called Ocean Revolution.

"I just see winning the award as another way to talk about the importance of us paying attention to what's going on in the world," Kennedy said. "That's what motivates me, the chance to inspire people to not be complacent about the issues we're facing as a society."

That said, Kennedy doesn't see herself as a daredevil. She's a teacher. That means putting serious issues on the table, then helping students understand them and put them in context.

"A lot of people don't understand what public education is all about, and what teachers go through to teach things that are true," she said. "In terms of science, there are things that are true and there are things that are political. We somehow have to keep teaching the things that are true, even when it's hard."

That's what Kennedy had in mind in the fall of 2008 when she showed a video called "The Story of Stuff" to her biology class.

The video is a pointed critique of American consumerism and its role in the production of waste and climate change.

One of Kennedy's students told her father about the video, and he complained to Big Sky officials, saying Kennedy should have offered a balanced perspective to what he viewed as a liberal broadside.

That complaint eventually made its way to the Missoula County Public Schools trustees, who in a decision that was broadly criticized, decided that Kennedy violated board policy concerning the teaching of controversial issues.

That policy, which was both vague and murky, was eventually rewritten by a community group chosen by Superintendent Alex Apostle.

The community's overall response to the board decision heartened Kennedy, even as she faced the occasional criticism.

"It was pretty unpleasant at times, but I think over time that I realized that I needed to be out there fighting this fight," Kennedy said. "We have to have people who will stand out there and not fear the repercussions. Maybe that's the daredevil part of this thing."

Kennedy's fellow teacher, Kate Lindner, and a former student nominated her for the award, and University of Montana biology professor Erick Greene wrote a letter on her behalf.

"Kathleen served as a lightning rod on these important issues of being able to raise and discuss important and contentious environmental issues," Greene wrote in his letter.

Being that lightning rod had its downside for a while, but Kennedy's energy for teaching is now renewed.

"I'm really excited to be part of the discussion we're having with kids about how to solve the problems that face us," she said. "We need to get busy."

Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or by e-mail at mmoore@missoulian.com.

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