Big-band jazz, laughter and a few tears cut through some of the tension Friday morning as the Missoula County Public Schools district welcomed back its teachers and staff.
The start-of-the-school-year celebration at Sentinel High School was a gathering of good will and merriment after a summer of turmoil, a sharing of "good feelings which we desperately needed," said Missoula Education Association president Dave Severson.
Many of those feelings were expressed with howls of laughter as real and imagined comedians cracked wise about life and learning in Missoula.
Missoula Mayor John Engen, a product of the school district he welcomed on Friday, ramped up his usual self-effacing schtick, joking about his preoccupation with food and his city's preoccupation with tearing up its streets.
"Because of road construction," he said in warning, "none of your kids will be able to get to school on Monday."
The Hellgate High School graduate softened with his recollections of the education he received at MCPS.
"It's occurred to me that I am the product of my mom, my dad, my friends and my teachers," he said to a warm ovation. "And that's it."
Last year, Engen corresponded with a high-school dropout, whom he worked with and persuaded to return to school. The boy and his mother thanked him, but Engen said his effort is nothing compared to what MCPS teachers do on a daily basis.
"It occurs to me that you do what I did thousands and thousands of times over your careers," he said. "You make a meaningful difference every day."
Sitting in the front row were the school board trustees, MCPS Superintendent Alex Apostle, UM President George Dennison and a phalanx of special guests, including Missoula's new Chinese and Arabic language instructors. On stage was the MCPS Faculty Jazz Band, which interjected throughout the meeting with Count Basie and Duke Ellington tunes.
And then there was Nathan Wildeboer, a boy entering the sixth grade at Meadow Hill Middle School, who spoke at the same gathering last year and was invited back by popular demand.
Wise far beyond his years and graced with a wicked sense of humor, Nathan brought the crowd to its feet with his ribbing of the mayor and his thoughts on teachers and school.
In preparation, Nathan calculated that teachers spend an average of 2,000 hours to educate kids like himself.
By comparison, "I usually don't wake up until 9:30 in the morning, but I do get out of bed around 7."
Nathan bragged about graduating from the elementary level, and promised to "keep my grades dry" at Meadow Hill.
"You know," he said with perfect comic timing, "above C level."
More comic relief was provided by Michael Beers, a 2001 Hellgate graduate and professional comedian whose physical disabilities may have slowed his body, but not his razor-sharp mind.
Teachers, he said, many of them seated in front of him, inspired him and shaped his talents.
"It was a para-educator who first joked with me," said Beers. "It was an English teacher who taught me how to tell a story. And it was a drama teacher who said, ‘You know, you suck at acting, but you have really good timing.' "
Beers works with UM students with disabilities when he's not writing and performing new material.
He would not have become who he is today, Beers said, without a mother who fought for the rights of her son as he entered school.
"(The principal) thought maybe I belonged somewhere else or at home, because the thought was that maybe I wouldn't amount to much," said Beers, as people began to dab their eyes. "That's when I found out my mother was a quarter Jedi. She said to him, ‘My son is going to this school.' And he said, ‘Your son is going to this school.' "
Apostle, who along with the school board has taken two months of heated criticism for a raise in his new contract, tried to heal some hurt feelings and alluded to the strained relations between teachers and the administration.
"You, the staff, have made the difference," Apostle intoned. "I want to make that very clear. ... I value and respect each of you, and will work diligently - I want you to hear this - work diligently to resolve the issue that concerns you and me. I give you my word on that here, in front of everybody."
He said MCPS' teachers will make Missoula's schools "the leader in American public education."
Apostle was given polite applause.
The morning's final speaker also brought some to tears with his recollections. Hal Stearns, a Montana historian, lifelong soldier and retired MCPS teacher, now lives in Helena and is married to Montana Commissioner of Higher Education Sheila Stearns.
Repeating the message often, Stearns said that as American education goes, so goes America.
And America should require excellence if it is to compete globally, "because the fact is, the world is flat," Stearns said.
It was America that led the world in the idea that every child deserves to have an education.
"When you think about the magic of America," he said, "we are trying to do something that no country has ever done, and that's educate everybody."
It takes not just a village to raise a child, but "a village to make a school," he said - and that ethic doesn't just work in education, but in golf.
A former Sentinel golf coach, Stearns once fielded a girls' team that couldn't seem to win a match.
"They didn't get one win all year," he said. "Not one."
"Until," he continued, "we got to the state tournament, where they won it all."
What could possibly explain a miracle like that?
"They believed in themselves as a team," Stearns said.
Reach reporter Jamie Kelly at 523-5254 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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