POLSON – The high school diploma Tammy Couture earned from Polson High School in 1977 hangs on the wall above her daughter’s bed in their home here.
Not for long.
On June 2, Lorelie Couture will replace her mother’s PHS diploma, which the 18-year-old put up to inspire herself, with her own.
It wasn’t easy – not until Lorelie found the reason to buckle down, anyway.
She arrived at her mother’s alma mater at the start of her junior year, dragging a crateful of D’s and F’s on her high school report cards with her.
“I was young, and frustrated, and my brain was all over the place,” Lorelie says. “I was failing – extremely failing.”
She’ll leave with A’s and B’s and with plans to pursue a nursing degree in college – not to mention as the winner of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Most Improved Student award for the entire Flathead Indian Reservation, and CSKT’s choice as Tribal Student of the Year at PHS.
Not bad for someone Polson guidance counselor Emily Johnson admits she wasn’t sure, when she first took note of the incoming junior, would last a month.
“She transferred in with less than stellar grades, and obviously unhappy,” Johnson says.
But Lorelie soon showed up in Johnson’s office with a question:
What was it going to take for her to graduate from high school, and on time?
There was, it turns out, a motivating factor.
Lorelie bounced through five school systems, and foster care, while growing up without a father in the picture, and as Tammy’s only child.
“My dad took off when I was 3 months old,” says Lorelie, who says she has made efforts to contact him but never heard back. “He knows how to get hold of me, but if he doesn’t want me, there’s no need.”
She entered foster care when what Lorelie prefers to describe as “legal problems” took her mother out of the picture as well, for 2 1/2 years.
“We’ve been through a lot together,” Lorelie says. “My mom is my best friend. I can go to her with anything, and she always gives the best advice. She can tell me how to get through any situation when I’m struggling.”
Lorelie smiles when first asked if she has any siblings. It’s a great smile. The first time Johnson saw it in the halls of Polson High School two years ago, she told Lorelie she hoped to see it a lot more often.
In this case, Lorelie is smiling because of the question. Her mother, she explains, is a lesbian – “Everybody knows,” she says – and so Lorelie’s arrival 18 years ago was an unexpected and welcome surprise to people like Lorelie’s grandmother.
Her grandmother’s funeral brought Lorelie back to Montana from Reno, Nev., where she and Tammy were living at the time, during fifth grade. Tammy soon followed.
Tammy chose friends in Ronan who are licensed foster parents, Jay and Wanda Fisher, to care for her daughter while Tammy was away.
“In Ronan, I was frustrated,” Lorelie says. “I didn’t see my mother for two years, and I was so caught up in my own drama they didn’t think I’d make it. My foster parents hounded and hounded me to get my grades up, and I tried, but my brain wasn’t cooperating. It was like something was blocking me.”
She smiles that smile, and adds, “I guess I had a clog.”
It was not a done deal that mother and daughter would be reunited after Tammy’s return from Billings.
“The tribes looked at my grades and said I’d have to show I was trying,” says Lorelie, who is of both Salish and Kootenai descent. “The whole thing with getting back with my mom was showing them I could do it educationally.”
With the help of her new teachers and counselors, she did.
“I was really scared when I came here,” Lorelie says. “I didn’t know anybody, and I thought I might be called a traitor because I was coming from Ronan.”
The two schools, just a few miles apart, are longtime rivals. Johnson says Jan Toth, a special services teacher at Polson High School, took Lorelie under her wing and mentored her.
“She just needed people to notice her, talk to her, encourage her,” Johnson says.
“When I got here my attitude was rough, I stuck to myself and didn’t talk to many people,” Lorelie says.
But she made a couple of friends, which led to more friends. Knowing she would have to get her grades up to continue living with her mother, she applied herself to her schoolwork.
And she hung her mother’s diploma from PHS above her bed to remind herself what she was aiming for.
“She could easily have fallen through the cracks,” Johnson says. “She was just kind of there – one of those invisible kids, and she needed to not be invisible.”
“I told myself, ‘I can do this,’ ” Lorelie says. “And look – I’m a few days from graduating.”
Lorelie plans to take a year off from schooling, then pursue a nursing degree at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo.
“I want to be an OB/GYN nurse,” she says. “All my life I’ve wanted to work in a maternity room. Bringing life into the world is beautiful.”
She’s even helped with the delivery of her nephew.
Well, of course, as an only child Lorelie doesn’t technically have a nephew. But she has best friends, and claims two of them as sisters.
She was in the delivery room with one when the friend delivered a son six months ago, and Lorelie says the doctor, after learning of Lorelie’s interest in nursing, walked her through the procedure step by step as the baby was born.
Lorelie says she wants to take a year to refocus herself for college. That includes studying on her own “to know what I’m putting myself into with nursing school.”
She also plans to travel to California to visit a dear friend of her mother’s who Lorelie considers her stepfather.
Jim was an important presence in her life when Lorelie was in elementary school in Reno, she says, and took the time to do things with her that a dad would.
When she returns to the reservation, she plans to purchase a trailer from the tribes and set it up in Pablo, where she’ll be within walking distance of SKC.
And maybe in her new bedroom, she’ll hang her diploma above her bed to remind herself that she earned one once, and she can do it again.